All about alliteration
Alliterative agility in verse, prose, and more.
REMEMBER Lingering over lingerie (by Dr Lim Chin Lam, MOE, Sept 24)? Who would have thought that prim and proper senior with a cool, calm and collected demeanour could induce a lady like me to linger languorously over his choice of a cheeky, nay, titillating title? Well, I did, and came away fired by another fascinating facet of my favourite language – its amazing alliterative agility!
“Alliteration” (pronounced ah-lit-err-RAYshun) is described as “ the use of the same letter or sound at the beginning of words that are close together” ( Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, 2002; p31), as in “sing a song of six … Sen!” (and why not?) This repetition of initial sounds in neighbouring words is sometimes also termed front rhyme, head rhyme or initial rhyme. To help teachers understand the familial relationship between alliteration, assonance and consonance, I use this handy description: “Alliteration is the genus, whereas assonance and consonance are the species.” However, since I’m not on a family outing here, I will fête alliteration.
As a literary device, alliteration is an artful aid that adds frai cheur – French for freshness – for a creative and memorable language imprint. Assuredly, a little alliteration perks up language use, but not when you turn into an alliteration litter lout! Over-alliteration has a cloying, contemptuous, and/or even comic effect. It ceases to be a measure of your linguistic calibre; no more clever, when clearly connived, continuously contrived and calculated; you create a casualty of conspiratorial cacophonous alphabetic sounds. Phew! A discordant stretch that surely contravenes the canons of good linguistic expression, I know! Lambaste me if you like. I say, “sorry, for subjecting you to a suffocating surfeit of the sonic sort” (oops! I did it again). A little lesson, I thought, to get the point across. Forgive me for trying too hard.
Indeed, the lingering sound effects make alliteration a popular literary device in the hands of clever writers. Many people use alliteration, but may not know the term for it and that’s allowable, surely, but unacceptable, when teachers plead ignorance. Especially, with “little l” forming part of the mainstream English syllabus.
Unlike the cacophonous disaster above, alliterations are meant to be euphonious in their alliance. After sitting so snugly together for effect, many acquire collocation status and subtly defy separation! These are part and parcel of our everyday expression. Take smoking section; through thick and thin; race relations and religion; fright, fight or flight; rant and rave; live and learn; do or die; publish or perish ... . Others are ... oh, so cleverly crafted creations to surprise, stimulate or inspire, for our reading pleasure!
Proud to be Malaysian? Ready to romp and roll through bits of local writings for a sampling?
Some recent raves: Stoner stays solid, India’s spectacular start to Commonwealth Games (Oct 4); Friends forever, bosom buddies (Edn, Oct 10); Reject racism (headline, Oct 11); Bus’ braking and steering system (Oct 12); Scintillating samba (13 Oct); Siblings still ‘stateless’, hip hop heritage (Oct 14); dank and dark, screaming in silence (Oct 15); Private push headline (Oct 16).
See how Stargazer columnist and MOE contributor Hau Boon Lai describes himself – one who “ponders the lives, loves and liberties of celebrities.”
Catchy ads: “Rehydrate. Replenish. Refuel.” “Convene with convenience.”
“Guinness is good for you.”
(alliterations not within quote marks are mine)
Celebrated poet Cecil Rajendra’s early collection in Hour Of Assassins (Asian Edition, 1988) carries some memorable alliterative titles: “Maggot Memories”; “Bans, Bombs and Bananas”; “Barbs and Bougainvillaea”; and simply “My Message”. This line, ‘Let’s keep the problem in proper/proportion’ in one poem, does reminder duty in another,’but keep it personal/and in proportion.’ He also defends death unto death in “Defence”, ‘Yes, Defence is Death & Death & Death/ for only death’s the ultimate deterrent.’
Starmag’s (Oct 10) Sarong style stories saw me reaching out for another early collection – Salleh Ben Joned’s alliterative Sajak Sajak Saleh – Poems Sacred and Profane (1987). The cover page paints a podgy posterior view of a woman wrapped in sarong, and straddled in a squat. From “A Hymn to my Sarong”, he takes ‘ ... solitary delight/ drenching the diaphanous sky.’ Then, as if in an accompanying apparel, “The Selendang of Death 1”, he serenades ‘... this selendang of scarlet silk/... O, sacred selendang, so soft and sturdy.’
Alina Rastam ( All the Beloveds, 2009), makes alliterative “Contact” in ‘... after the staring and the/seering and the/sleeping and the not sleeping ... so subtle and so slight ... . In Diver & Other Poems (2007), her “Prayer” strips me ‘barren and bare’ with an alliterative wear of words, ‘ And when I am done, despatched/ disburdened; delivered with the dawning at my door, ... .’ After much ‘kicking around the claims and clutter of a life ...’, along an alternating alliteratively lit path where ‘leaves fall, sometimes flaring with loveliness’, she finally finds her unguent in the paean “To Poetry”.
In The Mirror of a Hundred Hue” – A Miscellany (2001), Ghulam-Sarwar Yousof in “Death of an old actor”, is hands-on with a simple turn of repetitive sounds, ‘Had he had time/ ... Would he have abjured/His one/And only love?’
In like manner, Kee Thuan Chye in March 8: The Day Malaysia Woke Up (2008), employs an alliterative stretch for effect, ‘ We ... enlightened electorate who knew what we wanted.’ Earlier on, he has ‘ Hence the hustings.’
A quick dive into Dina Zaman’s I am Muslim (2007), and I scooped out ‘... smelled sweet flowers ... atop the hill a hut, ... heard dogs bay before, ... stood there, stupidly, ... dogs snapped and scrambled ... .’
A common collective used, harks back to the Old Testament Book of Exodus where Aaron and Hur stand ‘one on one side, one on the other,’ supporting Moses’ uplifted arms.
Now, how many remember the late Khor Cheang Kee? A pioneer of Malaysian journalism and one-time popular columnist, he has left us his compilation of “Penang Perspectives” in My Island In The Sun (1995). In his introduction, he records his late wife’s perspective from atop Penang Hill: ‘ There is, she sighs, so much time here to stand and stare.’
K.S. Maniam’s play, The Cord (1983), has Ratnam wax lyrical: “I’m the prince, I’m the prince,/Prince of the place, prince of the times.” Meanwhile, Muniandy’s fingers have the “power to paralyse”. Muniandy also wants to have a “Man-to-man talk” with his son – another common expression.
Tongue twisters – a treasure trove
I can’t even begin to relate how, through corrective repetitive recitation these rhythmic patterns of speech can train your tongue to twist and turn so that words come “trippingly on the tongue”. Never mind Hamlet. Peter Piper ... anyone?