When Adam’s Cub Scout den planned a trip to go horseback riding early last summer, I signed up to ride, too. I wondered why only one other parent in the den was going to ride. What were they going to do while the boys all saddled up and went out on the trail?
At the stable, all the kids and parents stood along the wall of a big room with a dirt floor while the horse handlers did a 15-minute lecture on safety around horses. Then they had the boys come up one by one to receive a Post-It with a piece of a horse’s anatomy written on it, which they were then to stick on a cooperative model horse named Jet. That part was interesting; I finally learned what a horse’s withers were, although I forgot later.
Then it was time for the riding. Each boy stepped up onto a platform, where an adult volunteer (me), helped him onto the horse. The handler then led the horse away, walking with it to the far wall, around to the side wall, along the side wall to the near wall, and from there back to the platform, where the one boy got off and another one got on. And that was the horseback ride I had paid for. I went ahead and chased that sunk cost (as Glen would say) by taking the ride when it was my turn.
After the excitement of the ride, the scouts and their parents relaxed with a tour of the stable. In one room, the handler showed us the hay and the straw, and asked if anyone knew the difference between them. I didn’t, so I listened carefully. She began by mentioning a practical difference:
Horses eat hay; they sleep on shtraw.
What? What was that? Did she say “shtraw”? Maybe I hadn’t heard right. The handler went on to explain the essential difference between hay and straw:
Hay is grass; shtraw is the stalks of oats and things like that.
She did it again! Oh, and of course, oats are a kind of grass, too, but I got the idea. But back to the phonetic point: The handler had substituted [ʃ] for [s] twice. She didn’t do it for all /s/s; she pronounced grass, stalks, and oats with [s]. Did she do it for any /s/ before a /t/? No: stalks. How about for any /s/ before /tr/? During the rest of the talk, I listened for more [ʃ]-[s] substitutions, and heard her use the words “stronger” and “street”, pronouncing each with [ʃtr]. No other /str/ Word came up, although the handler did utter an interdental /l/ when she said, “Horses eat a LOT of food.” Otherwise, her /l/’s were alveolar, so she might have been one of the speakers who pronounce their /l/’s interdentally for emphasis in a word that begins with /l/.
But back to the [ʃtr]-for-[str] substitution: I first learned about it in a paper called “Getting [ʃ]tronger Every Day?: More on Urbanization and the Socio-geographic Diffusion of (str) in Columbus, OH,” by David Durian. He notes that in this area, it’s more common among younger speakers, working class speakers, and speakers who grew up in the city of Columbus rather than its suburbs; and this last set of speakers is spreading the change to the suburbs they’ve moved to as adults. He also cites a 1984 study by Bill Labov which documents widespread [ʃtr] in Philadelphia.
Patricia O’Conner wrote about the [ʃtr]-for-[str] substitution in a Grammarphobia post in May 2008. Three months later, the topic came up on the American Dialect Society mailing list in August 2008, when Herb Stahlke reported hearing it in a speech by Michelle Obama. (More on that at the end of this post.) Since becoming aware of this sound change, and since that visit to the stables, I’ve been hearing [ʃ] in place of [s] in /str/ clusters in other places, too…
- When my wife and sons and I were watching the movie Independence Day (1996), I heard Harry Connick Jr.’s character say to Will Smith’s character, “You’ll never get a chance to fly the space shuttle if you marry a shtripper.” I made everyone wait while I rewound twice to make sure I’d heard right.
- A month later, we were watching Beverly Hills Cop (1984), and I heard Eddie Murphy’s character utter this other sentence about stripping: “The only reason these officers were in a shtrip club….”
- A couple of weeks into the school year, I overheard a conversation among a couple of Adam’s fellow fourth graders as they picked up their “Grab n Go” breakfast in the school hallway on the way to their classroom. Apparently the school can’t count on parents actually giving their kids breakfast every morning, so they provide snacks before school for any kids who want them, so they can start off the day with something nutritious and be able to concentrate better in class. This morning, it was Pop Tarts. One girl said to another, “It was funny, because you said brown sugar and I said shtrawberry!” It really must have been funny, because the girl said it again, and again pronounced strawberry as shtrawberry.
- At about 7:51 into episode 414 of This American Life, the producer of the first story, Ben Calhoun, says, “These weren’t regular uniformed cops. They were the guys in shtreet clothes.”
- In the past year, I’ve heard one of each of Doug’s and Adam’s friends pronounce /str/ as [ʃtr], usually in the word destroy.
- During a family trip to New York City last month, a bus tour guide consistently pronounced /str/ as [ʃtr].
- In a subsequent whale-watching trip that departed from Long Island, a guy from Madison, Wisconsin consistently pronounced /str/ as [ʃtr]. I later learned he’d grown up in Long Island.
- One of the audiobooks we listened to in the car on our trip was Judy Blume’s Blubber. The reader has [ʃtr] for /str/ about 80% of the time, I’d guess offhand. I’ve heard it in street, strip, stripe, and elsewhere. The occasional [str] pronunciations that come up make me imagine the reader in the studio, with the engineer making her go back and re-read those words, but giving up because the reader’s [ʃtr] is just too consistent to fight.
At this point, I’m starting to forget all the places I’m hearing [ʃtr] for /str/. But my question is why it would occur in the first place. Summarizing previous research, Durian mentions three possibilities. One is that it’s a case of the /s/ assimilating to become more like the /r/; specifically, it’s pronounced with the tongue pulled further back toward where the /r/ is pronounced. That’s a little unusual, because it would be a case of “long-distance” assimilation: The /s/ is taking after not the /t/ right next to it, but the /r/ after that. I’ll add that for some speakers, this could actually be a more typical case of assimilation. Speakers who produce a retroflex [r], by curling their tongue tip backwards, might well retroflect the /t/ before it as well, and if that /t/ is retroflected, the /s/ before it is liable to be retroflected, too. When that happens, it sounds like “sh,” but not quite like the [ʃ] version I’ve been talking about. In the IPA, this retroflex sibilant is written [ʂ]. Under this scenario, the “shtr” pronunciation is [ʂʈr] instead of [ʃtr]. (Most English speakers, including me, cannot hear the difference [ʂ] and [ʃ].)
A second possibility is restricted to a subset of those speakers who, like me, turn /t/ into an affricate before /r/, pronuncing trap as “chrap”. In particular it’s limited to those speakers who (unlike me), even affricate their /t/ when an /s/ comes before it. That is, some speakers (including me), pronounce trap beginning with [ʧr] (“chrap”). Within that group, some (including me) pronounce the trap part of strap with a [tr], while others pronounce it with [ʧr]. Within that smaller group, some speakers pronounce the /s/ as [s], to produce “s-chrap”, while others assimilate the /s/ to the [ʧ] by making it palatal: “sh-chrap”. I imagined a scenario like this near the end of one of my posts about /t/ affrication. But I can’t really tell if I’ve been hearing, say, “shtreet” or “sh-chreet”. In this paper (note 9), Brian Joseph and Rich Janda profess not to have found any reports of [ʃʧr] in the literature.
The third possibility, and the one Durian favors, is proposed by Joseph and Janda. It so happens that when [ʃtr] occurs in the middle of words, the preceding vowel is almost always a high vowel such as [i], as in restructure. Therefore, it may be a case of the tongue not lowering fast enough after the high vowel, resulting in the [s] turning into [ʃ]. Then, once the [ʃtr] cluster became familiar, speakers started using it at the beginnings of words, too. This would account for why in his data, [ʃtr] occurs more in the middle of words than at the beginning.
Let’s hear from some of the /s/-retractors out there. Do you pronounce str as “shtr” sometimes? All the time? Does it depend on the word? On the social context? Give it to us shtraight.