Definition of Sibilance

Sibilance is a special case of consonance in which the repeated consonant sound is either s, sh, z, or any of the other recognized sibilant sounds. Sibilance occurs when the repetition of these specific consonants are in close proximity.

Linguists define sibilant sounds as any consonant that requires pushing air past the tongue without closing the mouth at all. Thus, other sibilant consonants include the “dg” sound in “judge,” the “ch” in “teacher,” and the “s” in both “vision” and “test.” Other languages have even more examples of sibilant consonants. English sibilants are generally divided into two categories: hissing and hushing (both labels are onomatopoeias for the phenomena they represent).

The word sibilance comes from the Latin word sībilant, which means “a hissing” or “whistling.”

Difference Between Consonance, Assonance, Sibilance, and Alliteration

All of these terms refer to similar literary devices, in which sounds are repeated in quick succession.

  • Assonance is the repetition of the same vowel sound in close succession.
  • Consonance is the repetition of the same consonant sound in close proximity.
  • Alliteration is a special case of consonance in which the repetition of the same consonant sound occurs at the beginning of words in close proximity.
  • The definition of sibilance thus makes it a special case of consonance as well, because the repeated consonant sounds are all sibilants.

Commons Examples of Sibilance

One of the most common tongue twisters in English is an example of sibilance:

She sells seashells by the seashore.
The shells she sells are surely seashells.
So if she sells shells on the seashore,
I’m sure she sells seashore shells.

Some phrases and even words contain examples of sibilance (including the word sibilance itself), such as the following:

  • Succession
  • Sassafras
  • Circumstance
  • Residency
  • Zyzzyva
  • Blessing in disguise
  • Slap on the wrist
  • Sixth sense
  • Start from scratch
  • The last straw
  • X marks the spot
  • Last but not least

Significance of Sibilance in Literature

Sibilance has a special effect on the ear. Hushing sibilance, as can be found in the consonant blends sh, ch, and dg can sound very calming and euphonic, and are often found in lullabies and passages that describe beautiful images and good emotions. Hissing sibilance, on the other hand, as can be found in the consonants s and z, can sound harsh on the ear and might add to cacophony in a passage. When there are hissing sibilance examples, this might indicate a more disturbed mental state or external circumstance. Authors may choose one of these two types of sibilance, or even a combination of them, to indicate the type of mental state that a character or narrator is in. Sibilance, just like assonance and consonance, can add a sense of overall aural harmony and internal cohesiveness to a poem or line of prose.

Examples of Sibilance in Literature

Example #1

So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
And the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.

There was Shield Sheafson, scourge of many tribes,
A wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes.

(Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney)

There are several examples of sibilance in this excerpt from Seamus Heaney’s translation of the Old English epic Beowulf. Though in the original, the first word is not sibilant, Heaney chose to start the poem with the sharp word “So.” This word, with its hissing sibilance, calls attention quickly to itself and the storyteller. After this word, there are many more examples of sibilance, such as in the name “Shield Sheafson,” as well as in the words “Spear-Danes,” “days,” “kings,” “courage,” “greatness,” “those,” “princes’,” “campaigns,” “scourge,” “tribes,” “benches,” “rampaging,” and “foes.” Consonance was very important Old English poetry, since rhyme was not as popular of a literary device in the Anglo-Saxon language, and the repetition of consonant sounds helped to create aural harmony in a poem. Heaney is very aware of this tradition, and chose several instances of sibilance to enhance the sense of this poem being Anglo-Saxon.

Example #2

HAMLET: To die- to sleep-
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks 1755
That flesh is heir to. ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die- to sleep.
To sleep- perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub!
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, 1760
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.

(Hamlet by William Shakespeare)

This excerpt from William Shakespeare’s tragedy comes from Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” speech. Here Hamlet repeats the word “sleep” many times over, which, of course, begins with the sibilance consonant of “s.” There are many more examples of sibilance in this passage, including words such as “thousand,” “shocks,” “flesh,” “consummation,” “wish’d,” “perchance,” “shuffled,” “pause,” and “respect.” Hamlet uses a mixture of hissing and hushing sibilant words in this passage, indicating his vacillation between hope and despair.

Example #3

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

(“The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe)

Edgar Allen Poe’s poem “The Raven” is famous for having many sibilance examples. The narrator in this poem is in a very sorry state and is very depressed about the loss of his love, Lenore. In this two-line excerpt from the poem there are several examples of sibilance, including the “sh” in “wished,” and the “s” in “sought,” “books,” “surcease, “sorrow,” and “lost.” “Surcease,” in fact, has three sibilant consonants all in one word, since the “c” is soft and therefore also sibilant. Though the hushing sound in “wished” relates a hopeful aspect, the rest of the sibilant sounds are harsh and show the difficult mental state the narrator is in.

Example #4

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning ——
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

(The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald)

This excerpt from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby constitutes the final lines of the book. The last line has been singled out as one of the most famous conclusions of a novel ever, and indeed it is quite poetic. Part of the poeticism is Fitzgerald’s use of sibilance, which we can see in the words “so,” “boats,” “against,” “ceaselessly,” and “past.” Just looking at these words together, it is clear that they comprise the most important aspects of the line—boats that try to carry the characters into the past, and the characters’ fight against this movement. The aural harmony between the words unites them more tightly together.

Example #5

Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass.

(“After Apple Picking” by Robert Frost)

Robert Frost’s poem “After Apple Picking” has several examples of sibilance. Like in Hamlet’s speech, the narrator here is talking about sleep, and the repetition of sibilant sounds confers a sense of this movement toward sleep. There are several words that are sibilant here, such as “essence,” “sleep,” “scent,” “drowsing,” “strangeness,” “sight,” “glass,” “skimmed,” and “grass.”

Test Your Knowledge of Sibilance

1. Which of the following statements is the best sibilance definition?

A. The repetition of sibilant sounds, such as s, z, and sh in close succession.
B. The repetition of vowel sounds in close succession.
C. The repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of several words that are in close proximity.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″]
Answer: A is the correct answer. B is the definition of assonance and C is the definition of alliteration.[/spoiler]

2. Which of the following two terms are used for sibilant sounds in English?

I. Hissing
II. Hushing
III. Buzzing

A. Hissing and Buzzing
B. Hushing and Buzzing
C. Hissing and Hushing
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″]
Answer: C is the correct answer. While “buzzing” could certainly be an appropriate word for certain types of sibilance, hushing and hissing are the two terms used in common parlance for sibilance.[/spoiler]

3. Which of the following lines from Edgar Allen Poe’s poem “The Raven” contains an example of sibilance?

A. “Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,”
B. “And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain”
C. “Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,”
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″]
Answer: B is the correct answer. While both A and C contain one sibilant sound each (the “c” in “once” in the first line; the “sh” in “shutter” in the third line), there is no repetition of sibilant sounds to qualify them as sibilant lines. B, meanwhile, contains several instances of sibilant sounds, such as the “s” in “silken,” “sad,” and “rustling,” and the “c” in “uncertain.”[/spoiler]