I’ve always been a fan of literary studies — I was an English major in college and I continue to blog about literature on my personal blog. But when I first learned about the concept of alliteration (I must have been in middle school), I was unimpressed. Obviously making a poem rhyme requires some serious skill, since not just one sound but a series of sounds must be repeated at the same point in the poem’s meter. Alliteration, by contrast, only requires the repetition of a single consonant sound at the beginning of a few words. Clearly, creating clever combinations of consonant sounds wasn’t hard at all. What’s the point?
Some scholars have suggested that alliteration makes a poem easier to remember: an important skill back in the days when books were so expensive that it might be cheaper to pay a bard to recite a poem than buy a written copy. But there has been little research about whether alliteration actually acts as a way to spur memory. More to the point, alliteration is rarely used throughout a poem: some of the words have to start with different letters. So alliteration might help you remember some of the poem, but it can’t help you remember the parts that aren’t alliterative. Or can it?
A team led by R. Brooke Lea has come up with an innovative way to find out if alliteration helps not with the recall of the alliterative passage itself, but with words near that passage. They modified less-well-known poems by reknowned poets like William Carlos Williams and Robert Frost to eliminate all the alliteration in the poem. Then in a “target” line in each poem, they created three different versions: two alliterative ones and one non-alliterative one:
all along the raw and rutted road the reddish barn,
all along the way-winding road, wary whispers of the old barn,
all along the creek-winding road, past Stuart’s barn,
In this case, each version ends with “barn.” The question is, does the alliteration in the line help readers remember the word “barn”?
Lea and his colleagues had student volunteers read these modified poems aloud from a line-by-line computer display. At a random distance around ten lines from the target line, a second alliterative line was presented. In this case, the text read “the wooden willowy warp of wildcarrot leaf.” Once the student read this line, the poem was interrupted: the word “barn” flashed on the screen and the student was asked to indicate as quickly as possible whether the word had appeared in the poem.
Now you can see that the two alliterative passages in the target line had different purposes. In one case, the alliteration matched the later line in the poem (all the words start with “w”), while in another, it did not. Did the alliteration help the students recall the word “barn”? Here are the results:
When the alliteration in the second line matched the first, readers were significantly faster in recognizing the nearby, non-alliterative word (“barn” in our example). When the alliteration was different in that line, there was no difference in word-recognition reaction time compared to the no-alliteration condition. While this 110-millisecond difference in reaction time might not seem that dramatic, the results were highly significant, with a prep of .94. Remember, too, that some portion of the reaction time is due to basic, invariant motor-control functions, so this really is a dramatic difference. Alliteration really does aid in recall of even the non-alliterative portions of a poem.
The researchers repeated the study with new students who read the poems silently and found the same effect. Then they repeated it again with prose passages, and again found the same effect. So even in a text passage where readers may not be as aware of the potential for alliteration, alliteration still appears to enhance memory.
R. Brooke Lea, David N. Rapp, Andrew Elfenbein, Aaron D. Mitchel, Russell Swinburne Romine (2008). Sweet Silent Thought: Alliteration and Resonance in Poetry Comprehension Psychological Science, 19 (7), 709-716 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02146.x