Alliteration - playing with matching sounds - can be a great memory help in language learning. Image from

Alliteration Action : More Wordplay Fun for Vocab Learning

It’s been a week of language oddities again. Sifting through the little pile of dead hard to remember words, I’ve been on the lookout for more creative ways to make them stick. First there was rhyme. And now, here comes alliteration. Is there no end to this madness?

Madness it may be, but these tricks have been a valuable crutch in my recent language learning. Alliteration is a kind of rhyme in itself, of course, so it’s no wonder it has the same kind of mnemonic power.

Here are some of the more creative alliterative snippets and mnemonic buffoonery that have helped increase my polyglot memory stash this week!

Alliteration Avenue

First off, there’s a wee Greek word I was really struggling with. It’s εθισμός (ethismós – addiction) – and it’s just so similar to εθνικός (ethnikós – national), that the latter word was obscuring the new one.

What to do when two words are so easily mixed up? Smush them together in a single phrase! I’ve added the following to my increasingly whole-phrase decks on Anki:

ο εθνικός εθισμός
o ethnikós ethismós
the national addiction

The fact that this little chimeric snippet almost makes sense certainly helps. For instance, we could be talking about a TV programme, a sport, a celebrity power couple’s shenanigans – anything that grips a nation. And that e-e alliteration of the phrase adds a musicality, a hook, that makes both words easier to recall.

Now, if Greek is fertile ground for alliteration, then Swahili – which adds matching prefixes to words to make them agree with each other – is a cornucopia. You could say that it’s becoming my own addiction, in fact. So, struggling with -aminifu (honest) and maarufu (famous), I came up with:

mwanaume maarufu mwaminifu
an famous, honest man

Rolls beautifully off the tongue!

Morphological Madness

Wordplay offers some great roads into memory, and Swahili continues to provide the perfect playground. A little word that was causing me some bother lately was -lia (to cry, to weep). Since short words lack the tap-it-out-in-time rhythm of longer vocab items, they can have memorising disadvantages of their own. Swahili in particular seems to have these in abundance too, at least in its native Bantu vocab layer.

Key to banishing the fear with -lia was to learn the item morphologically padded out to give it some weight. I added it to the list as a conjugated example:

I wept

That includes not just the melodic l-l alliteration, but there’s also some nice linkword potential there. I wept enough tears to create the Nile. Dramatic. But unforgettable!

Similar Street

Finally, there is a tricky bunch of Polish words that has proven resistant to remembrance. The frightful four are:

grzebień (comb)
jesień (autumn)
kieszeń (pocket)
wrzesień (September)

No alliteration here, but we’re back to a bit of rhyming in -eń. Again, with a little creative jiggling, you can make some fun mnemonic sentences that put flesh on the bones: 

Wrzesień jest jesienią, i mam grzebień w kieszeni.
September is in Autumn, and I have a comb in (my) pocket.

Granted, that’s not quite as musical a my Greek and Swahili efforts. Polish nouns change so much according to case and number that it’s quite difficult (as a non-native!) to get them into a sentence where they still rhyme.

That said, it’s the process that helped here. Just thinking for a couple of minutes about how to squeeze those words into a single sentence has helped lodge them a little more in my memory.

One last note on that Polish quad set. Sometimes a bit of historical linguistics and etymological digging can assist, too. Namely, grzebień is actually cognate with the English word ‘grab’, via the Proto-Indo-European root *gʰrebʰ-, which may have meant something like ‘to scratch’. Probably not what you want your comb to do to your head, but you can see the connection!

I go full-on geek with wordplay and sound effects when it comes to vocab. But it’s an effective and fun way to work with the most stubborn rascals!

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