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What Is the Difference between Alliteration and Onomatopoeia?

By Mark Wollacott
Updated May 23, 2024
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The difference between alliteration and onomatopoeia is that the former is a repetition of sounds and the other is the description of sounds. Alliteration and onomatopoeia serve different functions within a language. Alliteration is a literary device most often used in poetry while onomatopoeia is descriptive and used in everyday language. The two are not mutually exclusive and many onomatopoeia cases are alliterative, like a clock’s “tick tock.”

Alliteration involves the intentional repetition of a sound or letter. This can take the form of a whole syllable or of a single consonant. A run of words beginning with the same letter is just as alliterative as a pair of words with the same opening syllable. Such repetition can take place in any number of languages, but is particularly prevalent in Germanic languages such as English, and especially Anglo-Saxon.

The term onomatopoeia is applied to words that describe an actual sound such as plop. Such sounds are often used to describe animal noises or the sounds of machines. Every language has onomatopoeic sounds for such things, but they rarely agree on what the sound is. Even in English, some dogs go ‘woof woof’ while others go ‘bow wow’ and some go ‘ruff ruff.’

Old English poetry used alliteration as its predominant structure. Each line of verse was divided into two half-lines. The first half-line would have two alliterative words and the second half-line would have one word alliterating with the first half-line and a final word that did not alliterate. In Anglo-Saxon and Old English poetry, alliteration and onomatopoeia were completely separate phenomena.

As English developed after 1066 and was greatly influenced by French poetry, the use of alliteration dwindled. More recent exponents of the craft include W.H. Auden, who wrote “The Age of Anxiety,” and J.R.R. Tolkien, who wrote “The Lay of the Children of Hurin.” Twentieth century free-form poetry began to use alliteration and onomatopoeia, incorporating sounds as a means of description and adding quirky rhythms to poems.

Real life and especially fictional names often end up being alliterative. These include celebrities and politicians such as Steven Spielberg, Ryan Reynolds and Ronald Regan. They are especially found in comic books, including the creations of Stan Lee, such as Peter Parker, who is better known as Spiderman. Sometimes the alliteration can be more subtle, visual rather than audible, such as British actor Sean Bean.

Comic books have played a large role in the development of alliteration and onomatopoeia. Just as Stan Lee used alliterative names for many of his characters, comic book writers and artists such as Roy Crane used words to describe sounds. This led to the popularization of onomatopoeia such as “bam,” “pow” and “dook dook.” Such sounds later made their way onto television shows such as “Batman” and movies such as “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.”

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