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In Germanic poetry such as the edda and Beowulf, consonant cluster words starting with the letter s have special rules about alliteration.

From Wikipedia, using Minkova 2003 as a source:

The consonant clusters st-, sp- and sc- are treated as separate sounds (so st- only alliterates with st-, not with s- or sp-)

As we can see, different one syllable double consonant clusters starting with s- are not considered equivalent, so 'spoke' does not alliterate with 'stake'.

My question is: What about triple consonant clusters that have the first two consonants in common? For example, 'strife' and 'strain' surely alliterate, because they both start with str-, but does 'storm' alliterate with 'strength'? They both contain st-, so their first two consonants are identical, but one word only has st-, while the other has str-.

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  • There's a limited amount of constraints you can put on alliteration; my first thought when I looked at this question was "surely str- and st- must alliterate — it would be too hard to write poetry otherwise." And as Gareth's answer shows, indeed they do.
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Jun 24 at 20:32
  • @PeterShor given the numerous extra restrictions present in much of the skaldic poetry I don't think that's actually a relevant problem. Making it harder just gives more opportunity for the poet to show off their skill
    – Tristan
    Commented Jun 25 at 9:19

1 Answer 1

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These are all the lines in Beowulf in which one of the alliterating words starts with three consonants, the first being ‘s’:

Line Text
212 on stefn stigon.   Streamas wundon,
320 Stræt wæs stanfah,   stig wisode
1535 stið ⁊ stylecg.   Strenge getruwode,
2541 under stancleofu,   strengo getruwode
2546 stodan stanbogan,   stream ut þonan
3119 þonne stræla storm,   strengum gebæded,
Line Text
649 scaduhelma gesceapu   scriðan cwoman,
702 scriðan sceadugenga.   Sceotend swæfon,
978 hu him scir Metod   scrifan wille.

(Text of Beowulf from Kevin Kiernan, ed. Electronic Beowulf, 4th edition.)

So the Beowulf poet alliterated words starting ‘str-’ with other words starting ‘st-’, and words starting ‘scr-’ with other words starting ‘sc-’. In particular, line 3119 suggests that the poet alliterated “storm” with “strength” as proposed in the question.

Other alliterative poets in English seem to have followed a similar rule, for example, The Dream of the Rood has the line

standan stēame bedrifenne;   eall ic wæs mid strǣlum forwundod.

and in The Battle of Maldon we find the line

and þæt spere sprengde,   þæt hit sprang ongēan.

suggesting that words starting ‘spr-’ alliterated with other words starting ‘sp-’.

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    May be worth adding that this parallels the rule in Cr- onsets, that pr-, tr-, cr-, etc all alliterate with p-, t-, c- etc. In most instances, only the first consonant matters, the only apparent exceptions being that sp-, st-, & sc- only alliterate with sp-, st-, & sc- and not with other s-
    – Tristan
    Commented Jun 25 at 9:17

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