What a lovely word!
All writers have a natural instinct for using and appreciating assonance, which means to create a resemblance of sound in a phrase by repeating the same or similar vowel sounds.
Sometimes I imagine that language was birthed through assonance – that exquisite, subtle combination of sound and meaning. The dawn of language must have been punctuated by a grunt of love or whisper of fear or murmur of contentment.
The history of language – one of my most cherished subjects – can be very briefly illustrated as a development of meaning into symbol:
Dawn of language: Assonance – only sound carried the meaning of what we said.
Morning: Words were formed to symbolize the meaning of the grunt or murmur.
Noon: Writing was invented in picture-form: illustrations or pictograms to symbolize the words.
Mid-afternoon: The early alphabets were created, which became symbols for the pictograms.
Evening: to be discovered.
Symbols are tremendously important in our lives, because although a thing can be destroyed, the symbol of it cannot. We use symbols far more than any of us realize. Every word we write is really just a symbol for its meaning. In the pictograms of Ancient China, the word mountain was three upside-down ‘vees’ side by side: a drawing of a mountain! Or take the word ‘quarrel’,’ which was depicted as three women under a roof. These pictures evolved into symbols that nowadays you’d be hard put to extricate the original picture from, even in Chinese. Later, the Phoenicians began to form the earliest alphabets to symbolize parts of the word. What that did, eventually, was to separate a universal language of grunt and feeling (like math or the universally understood STOP sign) into hundreds of different languages with hundreds of different sounds and meaning.
The wonderful thing about the development of language is that we humans have a medium that can convey the spectacular richness of our existence. Throughout the evolution of human consciousness, language has perhaps evolved more than anything else in human beings. It’s moved from grunt to some of the most awe-inspiring, beautiful, complex stories and poems that can be dreamed!
Love language. It’s an extraordinary gift that has been developed wisely for thousands of years.
Fun Writing Practice
As a writer, you may be hardly aware of the rhythm and sounds that emerge in your writing – but for any good writer it’s instinctual. In this writing practice, make it conscious.
The word stems from Latin ‘assonare’: ‘ad’ means to respond to and ‘sonare’ means to sound. When you write assonantally, you’re inspiring your readers to respond emotionally to the quality of the sound in your words.
Usually we’re trying just to express ourselves as clearly and succinctly as possible. In this practice, be more subtle. By writing assonantally you’re not only relying on the meaning of the word to set the tone. Assonance affects your reader more like a painting or a piece of music does.
feet smeared by the sea, a moment’s clear
sky then the dark again, in the shadow of the rooted tree.
The repetition of similar vowel sounds in an assonant poem or paragraph gives you extra power over your reader. Oohs and aaahs, for example, create a sense of awe. Ohs and ayes may create a sense of longing. Play with your moods – read your prose piece or poem out loud. It’s the only way you’ll hear whether it’s working.
(By the way: Assonance also means that you’re in agreement, generally speaking. For example, if someone tells you that gardening is the most perfect activity for a summer afternoon, you might be in assonance – but you also respond by saying that lying in your hammock is just as pleasurable. If you disagree, you’d experience dissonance.)
- the upper lip of a newborn baby
- a Byzantine icon
- sailing to the Outer Hebrides
- in the still of the night
- opening to the first page
- a flurry of love letters exchanged
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