Onomatopoeia, Alliteration, and Rhyme Help (page 3)
The term onomatopoeia comes from the Greek for "word-making." It means the employment of one or more words to imitate, echo, or suggest the sound of the thing or action described. Such words include bang, click, fizz, hush, buzz, moo, quack, and meow. When you pay attention to the sounds of our language, you soon realize how many of our words are onomatopoetic: bounce, boom, clap, clang, crackle, hiccup, ping pong, pitter-patter, plop, poof, snore, swoosh, slither, slop, splat, thud, tick-tock, and zap.
In Spunk and Byte: A Writer's Guide to Punchier, More Engaging Language & Style, author Arthur Plotnik writes on the value of using good sound words like click and gulp, whomp and wallop, garble, gobble, and squawk. Onomatopoeia represents sound on the page even when we can't find a word to do it: brrrinnggg, ka-ching, vroom, thunk, ka-zoom, and psht psht, for instance.
Here are several examples that are often chosen from literature to illustrate the use of onomatopoeia:
Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven" (www.heise.de/ix/raven/Literature/Lore/TheRaven.html) includes "the silken, sad, uncertain/Rustling of each purple curtain," rustling being a word that mimics the sound the curtain is making.
Lord Byron wrote in part LXXVIII of "Canto the Seventh" (www.onlineliterature.com/byron/don-juan/8/):
Bombs, drums, guns, bastions, batteries, bayonets, bullets,—
Hard words, which stick in the soft Muses' gullets.
Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote in "The Princess, Part vii" (http://oldpoetry.com/opoem/25334-Alfred-Lord-Tennyson-The-Princess—part-7-):
Myriads of rivulets hurrying through the lawn,
The moan of doves in immemorial elms,
And murmuring of innumerable bees.
Taking lessons from poets, we can infuse both our poetry and our prose with onomatopoeia by concentrating on using verbs, adjectives, and nouns that imitate the sounds of the lives we are portraying. If you want to talk about how a brisk household employee walks, you might use onomatopoeia in a verb: "All day, her heels clicked their way between the kitchen and the living room." If you want to show the way a dripping faucet bothers a lonely man as he is trying to fall asleep, you can use onomatopoeia in nouns: "The drip, drip, drip of the tiny kitchen's sink faucet kept him awake as if it were the dawn to dusk chirping of a chipmunk in heat." Here is a phrase with an adjective that has onomatopoeia: "The snappy rhythm of her pea shelling made him feel welcome."
You can practice using onomatopoeia by concentrating on describing the sound of events in your experience. In the passage I wrote about garbage collection day in Los Angeles, using onomatopoeia came naturally. Here it is again:
On garbage collection days, the disposal company my husband calls Loud and Early slams and smashes its way into our sleep. We hear garbage cans scrape the top of the thick rusty truck, then clatter across the asphalt and cement of street and curb. When we hear the garbage truck grind the dregs of our existence to a pulp, we slide our feet to the floor. A police helicopter hurls its hello from overhead, shaking the walls and shattering any memory of our dreams.
Describe a noisy situation you routinely encounter. Look for opportunities to use onomatopoetic words or inventions.
Next, choose a quiet place to describe; are you using words like whisper, shush, and hum?
And try this: Write about a person you know well. Describe the sound this person makes as he or she goes about some part of their daily routine or enters a room. Does this person clank a row of coffee cups? Crack gum? Snap rubber bands?'
Finally, play with onomatopoeia this way: ascribe sound to other senses. For instance, here I've given a sight image a sound: Sunlight crackled through the broken window.
You can give sound to smell: Her perfume sashayed through the room before she did.
You can give sound to taste: The curry clamored over his uninitiated tongue like an invading army.
And you can give sound to touch: Her fingers hushed over the 1,000 thread-count sheets.
Sometimes words sound like something feels: sleaze, grease, sneer, glitter, wrinkle, and pulp, for instance. These, too, are vibrant words in description and combine well with onomatopoeia: The grease sizzled in the hot iron pan, splattering into the depths of her wrinkled apron.
Give this a try: Describe a person involved in some action (like cooking, sewing, playing ball or tennis or golf, gardening, or driving) by using words that imitate the sound of the action as well as words that sound like something feels:
He placed the golf ball on the tee, taking pleasure in the feel of its dimpled surface. When he hit the ball correctly, the thwack of his club left him exhilarated. He bent down to retrieve the tee and walked confidently toward his next shot, the wheels of his pull cart chirping over the grass.
Alliteration is the name for neighboring words with the same beginning sound. In my description of garbage collection day in Los Angeles there are a few uses of alliteration: "slams and smashes," "feet to the floor," "helicopter hurls," and "shaking and shattering." Whether the words start with soft sounds or hard sounds, having the beginning sound repeat evokes feeling as well as supplies energy to a description, making it memorable.
Here are examples of alliteration from literature:
Look at what you wrote describing a quiet or a noisy place. Notice any alliteration that entered the writing. See if you can expand on what you started.
Next, think about a sound from childhood that you heard often that you found uncomfortable: the sound of pots clanging as your mother looked for just the right one, the sound of doors slamming or doors squeaking, the sound of your father's razor blade tapping against the porcelain sink, the sound of a drill when you were at the dentist's office. Or think of sounds you found comforting: the hum of your mother's Mixmaster as she mixed ingredients for a cake, the chime of the doorbell on Saturday morning that meant your favorite uncle was arriving, the thunk of the newspaper landing at your door early in the morning, the sound of Sunday football games on TV when you gathered with cousins to watch.
With a specific image in mind, write a description of yourself hearing the sound and use alliteration as much as you can. Some of the alliteration will be to get the sound of your experience in the readers' ears. And some of the alliteration you use will tell readers about the emotions of the time:
I sat in the dentist's chair, every inch of my eight-year-old self braced against what I knew was coming because I'd been there before. My hands on the armrest made a clench to calm the cracking sound I knew I'd hear inside my head. This was the third baby tooth he'd taken since the roots hadn't dissolved and the big teeth were blocked and held back from their rightful place.
Most of us were brought up on limericks, nursery rhymes and greeting card verse and can easily identify the words that rhyme in the traditional way, from the "blue" and "you" in "Roses are red/Violets are blue,/Sugar is sweet,/And so are you" to the rhyming "sicken" and "thicken", "die" and "cry" in Mark Twain's lampoon in Huckleberry Finn (http://books.google.com/books?id=BHVaAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&cd=2&source=gbs_ViewAPI#v=onepage&q&f=false):
- And did young Stephen sicken,
- And did young Stephen die?
- And did the sad hearts thicken,
- And did the mourners cry?
Our ears are also tuned to the entertaining sound of words inside lines rhyming fully: I did cry because the fly/was ready to eat the meat.
When we chant the famous nursery rhyme "Hickory Dickory Dock," (www. Dltk teach.com/rhymes/hickory/words.htm) we hear a familiar full rhyme in the first and second words and then at the ends of line one and two, but there is also a more subtle rhyme, one we call a slant rhyme, in the third and fourth line endings:
- Hickory dickory dock
- The mouse ran up the clock.
- The clock struck one,
- The mouse ran down,
- Hickory, dickory, dock
"One" and "down" rhyme because of their vowel sounds, the long "o" in one and the "ow" sound in down. This kind of slant rhyme is called assonance. When the consonants that begin or end words with stressed syllables rhyme as in "clock" and "struck," the slant rhyme is called consonance. Some more examples: "Or" and "horn" create a slant rhyme that uses assonance; "blanket" and "forget" create a slant rhyme that uses consonance. It gets more complicated with other terms that further define how many parts of the words rhyme, but understanding that insides and outsides of words can rhyme will help you bring good sound to your writing and is enough of an understanding to work with effectively as a writer.
Most writers today prefer slant rhyme to full rhyme. Full rhymes are thought to easily detract from the emotional message of writing because they become chimey and sing-songy. It may be that in times past full rhyme was a means to remembering what one heard; the change in what writers and readers favor is probably due to the fact that today we usually read rather than listen to writing. It may also be that the subtle sound of slant rhyme brings more pleasure because this sounds modern and sophisticated.
Here are a few lines from Richard Hugo's poem "Letter to Snyder from Montana" (www.aprweb.org/poem/letter-snyder-montana), which appeared in 31 Letters and 13 Dreams, now a part of Hugo's collected works, Making Certain It Goes On. These lines convey feeling with slant rhyme at both the line endings and in the interior of lines, and there is onomatopoeia and alliteration.
- Dear Gary: As soon as you'd gone winter snapped shut again
- on Missoula. Right now snow from the east and last night
- cold enough to arrest the melting of ice.
"Again," "night" and "ice" employ slant rhyme in line endings. "Soon" and "you'd," and "Now" and "snow" and "east" and "last" employ slant rhyme in the interiors of the lines. Of course "snapped shut" employs both onomatopoeia and alliteration.
Look at lines from another of Hugo's poems. "Letter to Wagoner from Port Townsend" is also from 31 Letters and 13 Dreams:
- all said, this is my soul, the salmon rolling in the strait
- and salt air loaded with cream for our breathing.
- And around the bend a way, Dungeness Spit. I don't need
Can you identify the long e sound of the vowels rhyming in the last two line endings? Do you notice the way five words that start with "s" come close together, causing alliterative sound—said, soul, salmon, strait, salt?
To experiment with these kinds of sounds, write a paragraph as if you are:
- A person who is slamming the door and leaving the house because of a fight with someone you live with. Write about where you are going and what you hope to do there and what will be there and why it is necessary for you to leave. Do the words sound angry? Lonely? Sad? Where in the sounds of the words are those feelings coming from? What terms would you use to describe them: assonant or consonant slant rhyming? Alliterative, onomatopoetic?
- Now, write a paragraph that expresses the thoughts of someone who has needed a place to rest after traveling, running out of money, or having been thrown out of a situation. Write about what the person notices in the new environment. Again, ask yourself about the feelings the words convey, and check to see if you have used the sound techniques we've been talking about.
My experience is that when we are writing well from an emotional situation by using specifics and the five senses, the words almost automatically use slant rhyme, onomatopoeia, and alliteration. Our job as writers is to notice the tone of the words that sound right and then to weed out the words that don't convey the meaning we find in our words. For instance, at first, I wrote the example about the golfer this way:
He placed the golf ball on the tee, taking pleasure in the feel of its dimpled surface. When he hit the ball correctly, the thwack of his club left him exhilarated. He bent down to retrieve the tee and walked confidently toward his next shot, the wheels of his pull cart squeaking over the grass.
The word "squeaking" seemed out-of-tone, more like something annoying than pleasurable. So I substituted chirping, which seems merry, like the golfer in this situation.
When you practice with sound, make bold strokes and do the best you can. When you read what you wrote and work on revising, be sensitive to tone. Most of the time, once you are working "in flow," the in-tone words will dominate, but sometimes, you have to work a little to find just the right sound word.
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