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Sibilance Meaning and Examples

Shruti Bhat May 10, 2019
Sibilance refers to the way in which fricative and affricate consonants are articulated. These consonants make a hissing sound.
The word Sibilance originated from the Latin word sībilāre meaning to hiss.
Sibilance is a manner of pronouncing fricative and affricate consonants, in which the tongue directs air towards the teeth causing a hissing sound. These words are known as sibilants.
Sibilants have an intense sound and can be non-linguistic or linguistic in nature. Certain words have a hissing sound caused due to the tongue creating an escape for air, making the sound louder. Other words have a hushed sound, because of the flatter tongue curve, resulting in a lower pitch.
The IPA or International Phonetic Alphabet symbols used to denote sibilant sounds are /s/, /ʃ/, //, /z/, //. Let's get a better understanding of sibilance with the help of its examples in poetry and literature.

Meaning and Examples

The sound is derived by exhaling air from the mouth, directing it with the teeth and the tip and blade of the tongue. This produces a hissing sound. Observe the words:
sick: /sɪk/
ship: /ʃɪp/
chair: /eə(r)/
zip: /zɪp/
judge: /ʌ/
The words 'judge' and 'chair' are affricates, while the rest are fricatives.
When you use words with a /s/ or /z/, you are using alveolar sibilants, where the back of the tongue narrows the channel while focusing the stream of air in a narrow and intense stream causing a high-pitched sound. In the case of /ʃ/, /tʃ/, /ʒ/, and /dʒ/ the tongue is flatter, giving a lower-pitched sound.
Sibilants vary as per the point of contact of the tongue, place of contact of the tongue, its shape during articulation, etc. The place of contact and the way the air escapes the mouth, determines the kind of sound produced (especially the pitch).

Types of Sibilance

Shape of the Tongue


/s/, /z/: /s/ is an alveolar consonant, meaning it is pronounced by raising the mid of the tongue and placing the tip behind the teeth. This creates a hissing sound as the air escapes through the teeth. For instance:
Saturday: /ˈsætɚˌdeɪ/
Bass: /ˈbeɪs/
Cross: /ˈkrɑːs/
Start: /ˈstɑɚt/
/z/ is also an alveolar consonant. It is derived in the same way as /s/. However, the lips are spread so as to derive a more intense piercing sound, as the air is pushed through the gaps of the teeth. The sound is often used for the letter /s/ when it comes in plurals of words.
Zip: /ˈzɪp/
Buzz: /ˈbʌz/
Zoo: /ˈzuː/

/ʃ/, /ʒ/: The tongue is moderately convex and palatalized to produce these sounds. There is a brief restriction of the airflow during the pronunciation of these words. In the case of /ʃ/ the sound is voiceless post-alveolar fricatives. Listen and imitate the following words to understand better:
she: /ʃi:/
shore: /ʃɔ:r/
shell: /ʃel/
wish: /wɪʃ/
The sound is a voiced postalveolar fricative. The pronunciation of the sound /z/ is more extended as compared to before. The sound moves towards the alveolar ridge and slightly drops the pitch giving it a noisier quality. Observe the sound and pronunciation of /ʒ/, while pronouncing the following words:
measure: /ˈmeʒə/


Affricates such as /tʃ/ and /dʒ/ are two such sounds that are quite similar to each other in terms of pronunciation. Both are created by merging two consonants.
/tʃ/ has a post-alveolar articulation; however, it is voiceless. It begins with blocking of airflow in the beginning and then letting go of the air to form the rest of the word. It is pronounced like the following words, where tch are combined to make the first sound of /tʃ/.
chair: /eə/
rich: /rɪ/
chip: /ɪp/
The air is stopped at the postalveolar point. Making the /dʒ/ sound is similar to its partner, except that this one is voiced. Say the following words out.
job: /ɒb/
joke: /oʊk/
edge: /e/
judge: /ʌ/.

Place of Articulation

Place of articulation is the point where the tongue comes in contact with other parts of the mouth like the back of the teeth or the palate, or the denti-alveolar, alveolar, and postalveolar parts.

Place of Articulation on the Tongue

When different parts of the tongue come in contact with the parts of the mouth, they produce variations in sounds. It ranges from a strong hiss to a mellowed hush.

Sibilance in Literature and Poetry

Act 1, Scene 2, Macbeth by William Shakespeare

As whence the sun 'gins his reflection
Shipwrecking storms and direful thunders break,
So from that spring whence comfort seemed to come
Discomfort swells. Mark, King of Scotland, mark:
No sooner justice had, with valor armed,
But the Norweyan lord, surveying vantage,
With furbished arms and new supplies of men,
Till seven at night. To make society
The sweeter welcome, we will keep ourselves
Till suppertime alone. While then, God be with you!

Sea Fever by John Masefield

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;
And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea's face, and a grey dawn breaking...

Dracula by Bram Stoker

The smell of sweetest victory swirled in his nostrils, overpowering the stale smell of battered bodies that lay under foot.

The play of words here, draws the reader's attention to the description following it. It further highlights the contrasting imageries of sweet and stale.
The examples of the use of sibilance were meant to help you understand how the use of this literary tool can impact a piece of writing. We hope you now have a better idea of what sibilance is.