Phonetic Expressive Means and Stylistic Devices


Иностранные языки, филология и лингвистика

This is the way a word a phrase or a sentence sounds. The sound of most words taken separately will have little or no aesthetic value. The way a separate word sounds may produce a certain euphonic impression but this is a matter of individual perception and feeling and therefore subjective. In poetry we cannot help feeling that the arrangement of sounds carries a definite aesthetic function.



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Основы теории изучаемого языка                                                                         Стилистика английского языка

                                                                Лекция 6

                                                                                                                                Phonetic Expressive Means and Stylistic Devices

Lecture 6

Phonetic Expressive Means and Stylistic Devices

The stylistic approach to the utterance is not confined to its structure and sense. There is another thing to be taken into account which, in a certain type of communication, f.e. belles-lettres, plays an important role. This is the way a word, a phrase or a sentence sounds. The sound of most words taken separately will have little or no aesthetic value. It is in combination with other words that a word may acquire a desired phonetic effect. The way a separate word sounds may produce a certain euphonic impression, but this is a matter of individual perception and feeling and therefore subjective.

In poetry we cannot help feeling that the arrangement of sounds carries a definite aesthetic function. Poetry is not entirely divorced from music. Such notions as harmony, euphony, rhythm and other sound phenomena undoubtedly are not indifferent to the general effect produced by a verbal chain. Poetry, unlike prose, is meant to be read out loud and any oral performance of a message inevitably involves definite musical (in the broad sense of the word) interpretation.

Now let us see what phonetic SDs secure this musical function.


Onomatopoeia is a combination of speech-sounds which aims at imitating sounds produced in nature (wind, sea, thunder, etc), by things (machines or tools, etc), by people (sighing, laughter, patter of feet, etc) and by animals. Combinations of speech sounds of this type will inevitably be associated with whatever produces the natural sound. Therefore the relation between onomatopoeia and the phenomenon it is supposed to represent is one of metonymy.

There are two varieties of onomatopoeia: direct and indirect

Direct, which is contained in words which imitate nature sounds: ding-dong, buzz, bang, mew

However, these words can be used in a transferred meaning, as for instance, ding-dong, which represents the sound of bells rung continuously, may mean 1) noisy, 2) strenuously contested. Examples are:

a ding-dong struggle, a ding-dong go at something. In the following newspaper headline:

Indirect   onomatopoeia  is a combination of sounds the aim of which is to echo the essence of the utterance or phenomenon being described.

'And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain' (E. A. Poe),

where the repetition of the sound [s] actually produces the sound of the rustling of the curtain.

Indirect onomatopoeia, unlike alliteration, demands some mention of what makes the sound, as rustling (of curtains) in the line above. The same can be said of the sound [w] if it aims at reproducing, let us say, the sound of wind. The word wind must be mentioned

"Whenever the moon and stars are set, Whenever the wind is high, All night long" in the dark and wet A man goes riding by." (R. S. Stevenson)

A skilful example of onomatopoetic effect is shown by Robert Sou-they in his poem "How the Water Comes down at Ladore." The title of the poem reveals the purpose of the writer. By artful combination of words ending in -ing and by the gradual increase of the number of words in successive lines, the poet achieves the desired sound effect. The poem is rather too long to be reproduced here, but a few lines will suffice as illustrations:

"And nearing and clearing,

And falling and crawling and sprawling,

And gleaming and streaming and steaming and beaming,

And in this way the water comes down at Ladore,"


Alliteration is a phonetic stylistic device which aims at imparting a melodic effect to the utterance. The essence of this device lies in the repetition of similar sounds, in particular consonant sounds, in close succession, particularly at the beginning of successive words.

Alliteration, like most phonetic expressive means, does not bear any lexical or other meaning unless we agree that a sound meaning exists as such. But even so we may not be able to specify clearly the character of this meaning, and the term will merely suggest that a certain amount of information is contained in the repetition of sounds, as is the case with the repetition of lexical units.

However, certain sounds, if repeated, may produce an effect that can be specified.

For example, the sound [m] is frequently used by Tennyson in the poem "The Lotus Eaters" to give a somnolent effect.

"How sweet it were,...

To lend our hearts and spirits wholly

To the music of mild-minded melancholy;

To muse and brood and live again in memory*"

Therefore alliteration is generally regarded as a musical accompaniment of the author's idea, supporting it with some vague emotional atmosphere which each reader interprets for himself. Thus the repetition of the sound [d] in the lines quoted from Poe's poem "The Raven" prompts the feeling of anxiety, fear, horror, anguish or all these feelings simultaneously:

"Deep into the darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing, . "Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortals ever dared to dream before." (E. A. Poe)

Sometimes a competent reader, if unable to decipher the implied purpose of the alliteration, may grow irritated if it is overdone and be ready to discard it from the arsenal of useful stylistic devices.

An interesting example of the overuse of alliteration is given in Swinburne's "Nephelidia" where the poet parodies his own style:

"Gaunt as the ghastliest of glimpses that gleam through the gloom of the gloaming when ghosts go aghast."

When the choice of words depends primarily on the principle of alliteration, exactitude of expression, and even sense may suffer. But when used sparingly and with at least some slight inner connection with the sense of the utterance, alliteration heightens the general aesthetic effect.

Alliteration in the English language is deeply rooted in the traditions of English folklore. The laws of phonetic arrangement in Anglo-Saxon poetry differed greatly from those of present-day English poetry. In Old English poetry alliteration was one of the basic principles of verse and considered, along with rhythm, to be its main characteristic. Each stressed meaningful word in a line had to begin with the same sound or combination of sounds.


Rhyme is the repetition of identical or similar terminal sound combinations of words.

Rhyming words are generally placed at a regular distance from each other. In verse they are usually placed at the end of the corresponding lines.

Identity and particularly similarity of sound combinations may be relative. For instance, we distinguish between full rhymes and incomplete rhymes.

According to the way the rhymes are arranged within the stanza, certain models have crystallized, for instance:

1. couplets —when the last words of two successive lines are rhymed. This is commonly marked aa.

2. triple rhymes—aaa

3. cross rhymes—abab

4. framing or ring rhymes—abba


Rhythm exists in all spheres of human activity and assumes multifarious forms. It is a mighty weapon in stirring up emotions whatever its nature or origin, whether it is musical,- mechanical, or symmetrical, as in architecture.,

The most general definition of rhythm may be expressed as follows:

"Rhythm is a flow, movement, procedure, etc., characterized by basically regular recurrence of elements or features, as beat, or accent, in alternation with opposite or different elements or features" (Webster's New World Dictionary).

Rhythm, therefore, is the main factor which brings order into the utterance. The influence of the rhythm on the semantic aspect of the utterance is now being carefully investigated and it becomes apparent that orderly phonetic arrangement of the utterance calls forth orderly syntactical structures which, in their turn, suggest an orderly segmenting of the sense-groups.

Rhythm in language necessarily demands oppositions that alternate: long, short; stressed, unstressed; high, low; and other contrasting segments of speech.

The most observable rhythmical patterns in prose are based on the use of certain stylistic syntactical devices, namely, enumeration, repetition, parallel construction (in particular, balance) and chiasmus.


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