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I’m now curious because while I was updating the Wikipedia page for Onomatopoeias, I saw two different sets of sounds for scream and shriek. The sounds listed under these two sections seem to overlap.

According to Google, both words are synonyms:

  • scream noun
    a long, loud, piercing cry expressing extreme emotion or pain.

  • shriek noun
    a high-pitched piercing cry or sound; a scream.

They both seem to have almost identical meaning. (They are identical to me.) Is there any difference between these two words?

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Often, a scream has an Ahhhh sound, while a shriek has more of an Eeee sound. –  Wayfaring Stranger Dec 26 '13 at 19:19
    
Look at the etymology of both. You will find they are the same word, from different languages, if I'm not mistaken. –  medica Dec 26 '13 at 20:29
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Words can have identical primary denotational meanings, but still not be exact synonyms because of other unspecified nuances, connotations, collocations. They may be etymologically related ('ship' and 'skiff'). Here the slight difference is: 'scream' is much more generic a word and the sound of a scream lasts a little longer than a shriek. Cutting yourself with a knife warrants a shriek; with an axe a scream. Depending on your tolerance for pain. –  Mitch Dec 26 '13 at 20:38
    
@Mitch This makes it very clear (especially the knife vs. axe). I do believe that you should make your comment the answer. –  Damkerng T. Dec 26 '13 at 20:41
    
I think @EugeneT answered well enough for me. These are subtle usages that a native speaker at some point picks up purely by context, so it is very easy for a native speaker to say 'that doesn't sound right at all' but still not know how to explain why. I may be exaggerating. –  Mitch Dec 26 '13 at 21:00

2 Answers 2

up vote 3 down vote accepted

The main different would probably be the pitch and length of the sound.

When I think "scream", I'd mainly think of a long, loud cry.

When I think "shriek", I'd mainly think of how high-pitched the cry is.

I'm easily able to imagine a short shriek, but a short scream doesn't come to me so easily. It just turns into a "shout".

Hope this helps.

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There's nothing wrong with the answer, obviously. But I can't resist pointing out that both your main distinctions ("scream" = long, "shriek" = high-pitched) are implicit in OP's cited definitions. Making the question General Reference, imho. –  FumbleFingers Dec 26 '13 at 18:25
    
@FumbleFingers: What's wrong with emphasizing the difference? The definition of 'shriek' includes 'scream' which can be misleading. –  Mitch Dec 26 '13 at 20:41
    
What's wrong with it is that most native speakers already know the (small, and not always relevant) "difference" anyway, and non-native speakers should probably be asking such things on ELL. Or they could pick it up by carefully comparing dictionary definitions. I just put my closevote justification here rather than under the question itself. –  FumbleFingers Dec 27 '13 at 2:11

While I agree, the main difference in my mind is that the combined intensity and high pitch of a shriek causes me to cringe and be startled by the sound, even though a scream definitely gets my attention. This is especially true when the scream or shriek is out of anger more than fear.

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