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Sibilance

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Sibilance

Have you ever read a poem in which the 's' sound was repeated? Did you appreciate its musical quality? Sibilance is a term that describes the effect created by the sound 's' repeatedly used in quick succession, often in poetry. Poets can employ sibilance to enhance the meaning of their work.

For example, if a poem was about a snake, the plethora of 's' sounds could help mimic the hissing sound a snake makes.

Sibilance meaning

'Sibilance' derives from 'sibilant' which is a sharp sound with a higher pitch. To make sibilant sounds, the speaker directs a stream of air with their tongue towards their teeth, stressing the 's' sound.

Sibilance occurs when the consonant 's' sound is stressed, commonly in 'sh', 'z', and 's'.

An example of a sibilant sound is the 'sh' sound in leisure and pleasure. The 'sh' sound in words 'shop' and 'shoot' is in 'leisure' and 'pleasure', despite the fact they do not contain 'sh'. This is due to the sibilant 's' sound in the words changing the pronunciation of 's' to sound more like 'sh', stressing the 's' sound in the word.

Top tip: Say leisure and pleasure out loud and note the stream of air from your tongue to your teeth. That's what makes these words sibilant! Can you think of any other examples of sibilant words?

Sibilance examples

Here are a few examples of sibilant words:

  • essence

  • strange

  • zip

  • scent

  • drowsy

  • ship

All of these words are examples of sibilant words because they contain sibilant sounds, 's', 'z', and 'sh', in which the 's' sound is stressed. When these sounds are used in close succession, this is classed as sibilance.

The slimy, scaly, snake slithered through the wet grass, sliding through the door and into the kitchen.

The plethora of 's' sounds in the above quote mimics the traditional connotations of a snake: the hissing 'sss' sound it makes and the image of it slinking through the grass. The use of sibilance reinforces the meaning of the sentence.

When multiple sibilant sounds are used in succession it can emulate what the text is about. This is a simple example in which the ‘s’ sounds mimic the slithering imagery of a snake and allude to the hissing sound a snake makes. It's not all about snakes. The effects of sibilance are usually more complex when used in poetry.

Effect of sibilance

Sibilance has a variety of effects on writing which is why many writers use sibilant words in their work.

  • Maintaining / establishing a rhythm - the same sound used in quick succession can create a musical rhythmic effect on the text.

  • Smoothing the flow of the text - all words containing the sound 's' sound similar and this smooths transitions between words.

  • Drawing attention to a specific part of the poem - a particular section of the poem can be emphasises when the same sibilant sound is repeated.

  • To relay a hidden meaning or message in the text - when sibilance draws the attention of the reader to a particular section of the poem, the reader is able to notice the meaning of the text.

Sibilance in poetry

Let's explore the effect sibilance has on some well-known poems.

'Meeting Point' (1940) by Louis MacNeice

This is a poem about a couple who feel like time has stopped around them. They are so in love they feel they are the only two people in the world and their surroundings are insignificant.

Time was away and somewhere else,

There were two glasses and two chairs

And two people with the one pulse

(Somebody stopped the moving stairs):

Time was away and somewhere else

Here, the sibilance points to the underlying meaning of the poem. The succession of 's' sounds resembles the soft sound of sand slipping through an hourglass timer, reminding readers that time continues and nothing can stop it, even love. MacNeice suggests that love can silence everything around us; we forget time is passing as we are trapped in the present moment. The fact that MacNeice's use of sibilance subtly posits the idea of time progressing mirrors the way time passing and life existing outside of their relationship has similarly been pushed into the background of the lover's minds, as it has in the poem.

The sibilance is segregated from the rest of the poem by the use of brackets, much like the couple have distanced themselves from the outside world.

'A Quoi Bon Dire' (1916) By Charlotte Mew

Mew's poem is about a woman reminiscing about her late partner. She is still adamant she can feel their presence around her even though they are dead. The French title translates to 'what's the point in saying?' as now the speaker is alone in the world it seems she has little reason to speak.

Seventeen years ago you said

Something that sounded like Good-bye;

And everybody thinks that you are dead,

But I.

The sibilance mimics a hissing sound which could be interpreted as the speaker's former lover, a sound that is audible only to the speaker. The sibilance is almost like a secret code representing that the narrator can feel her late lover's presence.

The title 'what's the point in saying?' suggests that the pair do not use speech to communicate anymore; they have their own method of communication that goes beyond standard verbal communication, their own language that transcends the bounds of reality.

'Ode To Autumn' (1820) by John Keats

The poem begins with a sibilance. The soft 's' sound in 'sun' and 'mist' shows the way in which Keats viewed autumn as a beautiful season.

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,

Close bosom friend of the maturing sun

Top tip: Read these two lines aloud and you will notice how the 's' sound dominates the lines, establishing a soft rhythm that continues throughout the poem.

The lines that follow also contain sibilance and it becomes a vital part of the rhythm of the poem, as Keats continues to associate autumn with soft natural imagery.

Conspiring with him how to load and bless

With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;

To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees

The lines quoted above are similarly littered with 's' sounds maintaining the rhythm of the poem established in the first two lines. The sibilance reinforces Keats' depiction of autumn as a soft and gentle season, associated with beautiful and natural imagery.

'Lullaby' (1960) by Anne Sexton

Sexton's use of sibilance draws attention to the thick and sticky heat of summer.

It is a summer evening.

The yellow moths say

against the locked screens

and the faded curtains

suck over the window sills

and from another building

a goat calls in his dreams

The collection of 's' sounds emphasise the evening sun, presenting it as a tangible presence, embodied by the yellow moths hitting the window sills. By drawing attention to the window we can imagine the feeling of hot glass as the sun beats down on the window for an extended period of time.

As this poem depicts a nurse returning to a mentally ill patient to give them sleeping pills, the drowsiness associated with sleeping is emulated in the sibilance. The repetition of 's' sounds gives the poem the quality of a lullaby.

Sibilance - key takeaways

  • Sibilance is a term that describes the effect created by the 's' sound repeatedly used in quick succession, often in poetry.
  • Sibilance occurs when the consonant 's' sound is stressed, commonly in 'sh', 'z', and 's'. To make sibilant sounds, the speaker directs a stream of air with their tongue towards their teeth, stressing the 's' sound.
  • Sibilance is a technique authors deliberately use to enrich their writing and make it sound more poetic.
  • 'Essence', 'strange' and 'zip' are examples of sibilant words.
  • The effects of sibilance include: maintaining/establishing a rhythm, smoothing the flow of the text, drawing attention to a specific part of the poem, relaying a hidden meaning or message in the text.

Frequently Asked Questions about Sibilance

The effects of sibilance include: maintaining/establishing a rhythm, smoothing the flow of the text, drawing attention to a specific part of the poem, relaying a hidden meaning or message in the text.

Sibilance occurs when the consonant 's' sound is stressed, commonly in 'sh', 'z', and 's'. Sibilance describes the effect created by the 's' sound repeatedly used in quick succession, often in poetry.


This is a sentence which contains sibilance:

'The slimy, scaly, snake slithered through the wet grass, sliding through the door and into the kitchen.'


The plethora of 's' sounds in the sentence mimics the traditional connotations of a snake: the hissing 'sss' sound it makes and the image of it slinking through the grass. The use of sibilance reinforces the meaning of the sentence. 

This is an example of sibilance from John Keats' poem 'Ode to Autumn' (1820):

'Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,

Close bosom friend of the maturing sun'

'Sibilance' derives from 'sibilant' which is a sharp sound with a higher pitch. 

Final Sibilance Quiz

Question

True or false: the word 'sibilance' derives from the word 'sibilant'. 

Show answer

Answer

True. 

Show question

Question

True or false: 'leisure' and 'pleasure' are examples of sibilant words.

Show answer

Answer

True. 

Show question

Question

How does Mew use sibilance in her poem 'A Quoi Bon Dire?' and how does it reflect the meaning of the text?


Show answer

Answer

The sibilance mimics a hissing sound which could be interpreted as the speaker's former lover, a sound that is audible only to the speaker. The sibilance is almost like a secret code representing that the narrator can feel her late lover's presence. 

Show question

Question

How can you spot sibilance? 


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Answer

Sibilance can be spotted when the soft sound 's' is used frequently in a short space of time.

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Question

 What effect does sibilance have on literature?


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Answer

Sibilance has multiple effects. It can help reinforce the meaning of a text, hint at hidden meaning in a poem, establish rhythm, and draw attention to specific parts of a poem. 

Show question

Question

How does Sexton use sibilance and what effect does it have on her poem 'Lullaby' (1960)? 


Show answer

Answer

The drowsiness associated with sleeping is emulated in the sibilance. The repetition of 's' sounds gives the poem the quality of a lullaby.


Show question

Question

Which of the following are examples of sibilant words? 


Show answer

Answer

All of them.

Show question

Question

Which part of the sentence is sibilance?

The slimy, scaly, snake slithered through the door and into the kitchen.


Show answer

Answer

'slimy, scaly, snake slithered'.


Show question

Question

What does sibilant mean?

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Answer

A sharp sound with a higher pitch.

Show question

Question

How does MacNeice use sibilance in 'Meeting Point' (1940)? 


Show answer

Answer

In 'Meeting Point' the sibilance hints at an underlying message in the poem. The succession of 's' sounds could be liked to sand slipping through an hourglass timer, reminding readers that time is continuing and nothing can stop it, even love. The subtle use of sibilance representing time slipping away, reflects the way time moving on has been marginalized in the lover's lives, as it is in the poem.



Show question

Question

True of false: sibilance doesn't add musicality to poetry.


Show answer

Answer

False.

Show question

Question

True or false: sibilance can draw attention to specific parts of a poem.


Show answer

Answer

True.

Show question

Question

True or false: all words containing the sound 's' make them sound similar and smooths transitions between words


Show answer

Answer

True. 

Show question

Question

True or false: sibilance can't hint at underlying messages in poetry.


Show answer

Answer

False.

Show question

Question

How does Keats use sibilance in 'An Ode to Autumn' (1820)?


Show answer

Answer

The poem begins with a sibilance. The soft 's' sound in 'sun' and 'mist' shows the way in which Keats viewed autumn as a beautiful season.


Show question

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