Sibilance - Definition and Examples

Sibilance

Definition

In terms of a literary device, sibilance is simply the repetition of the various hissing or hushing “s” sounds for dramatic effect or to draw attention to those words and their message.

For example, the love-struck Romeo moans that his “sad hours seem long”. The obvious alliteration of “s” in “sad” and “seem” emphasise the terrible rejection and sorrow the character feels when he is first introduced in the play. It is important to note that the sibilant sound can also be heard at the end of “hours”.

After Juliet discovers he is a Montague, she argues “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”, suggesting she would love him no matter what he was called because he would still retain the beauty of the wonderful flower. The alliteration of “s” in “smell” and “sweet” draws attention to her desire. Remember, sibilance can occur anywhere in the word so the “s” in “rose” would be included in the definition. The repetition of the sound helps the audience to connect three of the most important words in the sentence and make sense of the image’s meaning.

Another good example from “Romeo and Juliet” occurs when Friar Lawrence warns Romeo “wisely and slow; they stumble that run fast”. The sibilant “s” sound can be heard in “wisely”, “slow”, “stumble” and “fast”. Again, the use of repetition helps support the character’s message that we should not be so impatient and rush into disastrous decisions.

In each of these examples, Shakespeare uses sibilance to make the images stand out to the audience because they are central to our understanding of the characters’ feelings and the story.

Other Spellings

Sibilance is not limited to words which include “s” in their spelling because a small adjustment to the shape of our mouths and tongues will generate a slightly softer or harsher sound. For example, the difference between the more turbulent /z/ and the quieter /s/ is created by our vocal chords, but the tip of our tongues remain at the top of our mouths when we push the air through. In this way, the production of these two sounds are very similar.

Can you work out the difference between a word beginning with “sh” and a word beginning with “s”? There is also what is known as the “soft c” in words such as “city” and “scarce”.

Consider Mercutio’s aggressive and dismissive response to the villainous Tybalt:

“Men’s eyes were made to look, and let them gaze;
I will not budge for no man’s pleasure, I.”

It is easy to identity the repetition of “s” on a page, but sibilance can also be heard in “gaze” and “budge”. If you listen carefully, the “z” and “dg” sounds are produced in the same way as most “s” sounds.

Mercutio also curses at Tybalt: “Zounds, consort”. The “z” sound at the start of “zounds” is sibilant because it is pronounced in the same way as the other “s” sounds in the quotation. This makes the character’s blasphemous response sound very bitter.

The Prince in the first scene describes how the “ancient citizens” of Verona have tried to quell the violence between the Montagues and Capulets. It may not be immediately apparent, but there is sibilance in the soft “c” of “ancient” and the two “z” sounds in “citizens”.

Conclusion

Sibilant sounds are usually pronounced from words with “s”, “sh”, “z”, soft “c” and even “j” in their spelling. It is no surprise that sibilance can be difficult to identity, so you have to listen carefully to the images. 

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