BlogLearnLiterary Technique: Sibilance

Literary Technique: Sibilance

Open notebook - Sibilance

Already taken a look at our list of Literary Techniques and want more info on sibilance?

No worries — we’ve got you covered in this in-depth explanation! Below, we’ve outlined the meaning and definition of sibilance, and its usage and effects as a technique. We’ve also included some examples so that you can see sibilance in action. 

Let’s get into it!

What is sibilance?
Similar Literary Techniques to Sibilance
Where is sibilance used?

What is sibilance?

Corn snake

The word “sibilance” comes from the word “sibilare”, meaning “to hiss” or “to whistle”.

Sibilance is a technique, often used by poets, involving the repetition of the ‘s’ sound within a phrase or sentence. Sibilance may also arise where there’s a repeated soft ‘c’ sound, a ‘sh’ sound, or a ‘ch’ sound.

Depending on the flow of a piece and word choice/phrasing, sibilance can usually either be read as soft and flowing, or cold and hissing. Thus, common uses of sibilance include imagery, tone, and mood.

Flowing stream - sibilance

Here as some examples of sibilance in action:

  • William Shakespeare, Hamlet: “Sit down a while / And let us once again assail your ears, / That are so fortified against our story, / What we have two nights seen.”
  • Nursery rhymes and tongue twisters: She sells seashells by the seashore.
  • J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter – the fictional language ‘Parseltongue’ is largely based on sibilance and sibilant sounds.

Similar Literary Techniques to Sibilance

While sibilance may sound similar to a lot of other techniques — consonance and assonance, onomatopoeia, and alliteration — there are a number of key differences to be aware of, so that you don’t confuse them in your analysis.

Let’s take a quick look at these differences now!

Sibilance VS Consonance and Assonance

Consonance refers to the repetition of the same consonant sound in a line of text. Consonance can be found in phrases like “pitter patter” and “twist and shout”. It’s a technique often used in poetry. For example, TS Eliot utilises consonance with the ‘w’ sound in the following lines:

When the wind blows the water white and black.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

– TS Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.

Sibilance, therefore, is a subset of consonance, as all sibilant sounds are consonants. The main difference is that sibilance focuses on repeated consonant sounds that have a ‘hushing’, ‘hissing’, or ‘gushing’ quality (for instance, ‘uncertain rustling’).

Assonance, on the other hand, refers to the repetition of the same vowel sound in a line of text, such as in the phrase “he seems to beam rays of sunshine with his eyes of green”. Sibilance can therefore never be assonance, as sibilant sounds do not involve vowels.

Sibilance VS Onomatopoeia

Speech bubble and sticky notes

Onomatopoeia is a technique describing words that mimic the sound effect of the subject that they are referring to. For instance, phrases like “The sack fell into the river with a splash” and “The rustling leaves kept me awake” hold words that allow readers to not only read, but to hear the words too.

Sibilance is therefore a subset of onomatopoeia, since it’s often used to create hushing or hissing sounds. Consider the phrase “silver sea” (also a form of alliteration!) – it’s almost as if you can actually hear the sea moving, flowing, and rushing.

Sibilance VS Alliteration

Alliteration as a technique focuses on the actual repetition of letters between words, used to create a ‘pulse’ or ‘beat’ in a piece of writing, to give it a lyrical or emotive effect. Alliteration is determined when several words in a line begin with the same letter.

For instance, the phrase “The teacher took the troublemakers’ toys” features alliteration of the letter ‘t’. Mostly, these words are placed next to or in close proximity to each other.

Sibilance, on the other hand, is not about the repetition of the letter ‘s’ itself, but the sound effect it creates. Unlike alliteration, it’s not always the case that the words with ‘s’ sounds are placed directly next to each other — sibilance occurs so long as there’s a continuing repetition of the ‘s’ sound close together in a phrase.

While alliteration requires that words begin with the same letter, sibilance doesn’t have a requirement that the ‘s’ sound occurs at the start of the word. In fact, there’s no requirement that it occurs at any particular point — the sound can occur at the beginning, middle, or end of words (i.e. let us once again assail your ears).

Where is sibilance used?

Sibilance is most commonly used in poetry, but may be used in novels and other literature as well. Given the focus on the ‘s’ sounds, composers mostly utilise sibilance to enhance imagery in a reader’s mind and to immerse them in atmosphere.

Often, sibilance is used to show sombreness, danger, intimacy, or sleepiness, and can help readers insert themselves into the world of a text to better understand a character’s emotions and reactions, as well as their physical environments.

When analysing sibilance, it’s really important to pay attention to the following:

  • The context: Understanding the context of the quote (that is, the scene and events leading up to it) is necessary in understanding the purpose of sibilance, as this will allow you to assess whether the sibilance evokes fear/discomfort, or comfort and intimacy. This assessment will be based off the atmosphere/context of the scene.
  • The subject matter: What is the sibilance being used to describe or talk about? Does it refer to an emotion/feeling, an object, an atmosphere, or a person? This again goes towards context, and will allow you to understand why the author used sibilance; that is, what emotions or feelings the author attempted to evoke in their readers.

Let’s dive into some famous examples of sibilance in action!

Example 1: TS Eliot

TS Eliot

Many of TS Eliot’s works feature sibilance, which he often uses to create rhythm and set the tone of his pieces. Some famous examples include:

Preludes: soul stretched tight across the skies”.

  • The poem serves as one of Eliot’s many laments about modernity and urban life. Here, the sibilance elongates the phrase, allowing him to slow the rhythm of the poem down to structurally reflect his perceived malaise within his new existence in his new, urban-minded society. 

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock: “I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”

  • Concluding a poem embodying disillusionment, the slow, soft sounds created by the sibilance here emphasises the persona’s (Prufrock’s) feeling of isolation and disconnection from his society. Combined with the imagery of a relatively small creature (the crab), the sibilance further allows Eliot to emphasise his insignificance by creating a resigned, lamenting tone. 

Check out other quotes from Eliot’s poetry here!

Example 2: Questions of Travel by Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop

There are too many waterfalls here; the crowded streams
hurry too rapidly down to the sea,
and the pressure of so many clouds on the mountaintops
makes them spill over the sides in soft slow-motion,
turning to waterfalls under our very eyes. 

The subject of this stanza is the waterfalls that Bishop is encountering on her travels. Hence, the heavy use of the ‘s’ sound here is an example of both sibilance and onomatopoeia — it mimics the rushing, hissing sound of waterfalls and rivers.

The consistent use further supports the idea that there are ‘too many’ waterfalls — that is, that they are overwhelming. Particularly, the fourth line (‘spill over the sides…’) emphasises this idea of a multitude of waterfalls, and water sounds.

Example 3: The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe

Eagerly I wished the morrow;—vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost Lenore

The tone of the poem is overwhelmingly melancholic and depressing. As such, the sibilance here is harsh and paints a wistful, sombre tone, relating to readers the depth of the speaker’s despair and immersing them in the disjointed mental state of the narrator.

There you have it!

We know that was a lot of information, so we’ve summarised the key points of sibilance for you here!

  • Sibilance is a technique involving the repetition of the ‘s’ sound (or alternatively, a repeated soft ‘c’ sound, a ‘sh’ sound, or a ‘ch’ sound) within a phrase or sentence.
  • It’s most commonly used in poetry, but can be used in other text types as well.
  • Usually, composers utilise sibilance to invoke or create particular images, tones, and moods. 
    • The effect of sibilance is dependent on the overall tone and purpose of the text, but commonly is read as soft and flowing, or cold and hissing.

And that’s all from us! Remember to scout our site for more helpful articles complete with tips, tricks, and analysis, and good luck!

You can check out other language features we’ve written about below:

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Rujuta Banhatti is currently a third year Law/International Studies student at UNSW. As a Content Writer at Art of Smart, she is super keen to be able to write (read: academically rant) about texts that she’s absolutely loved, both at school and in general.

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