Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Chricky Affrication

Posted by Neal on March 17, 2010

“Doug?” I asked as I knocked on his door.


“It’s going to be 65 degrees today, but it’s only 35 now, so you’ll want a long-sleeve shirt. Also, it’s St. Patrick’s Day, so you need to decide whether you’re going to wear green, or consciously boycott green.”

That’s how I have to put it to Doug. Otherwise, he’s likely to take the same attitude that I had toward St. Patrick’s Day when I was a kid. “Wear green? Why should I? I don’t have to wear green!” My attitude was a result of my unhappy introduction to the holiday: I walked into my first-grade classroom on what I thought was an ordinary morning, only to be greeted by three pinches within a minute. The teacher rescued me by giving me a green construction-paper shamrock to pin on, saying something about “Patrick’s day.” What, my friend Patrick Montgomery had a day in his honor? What did that have to do with getting pinched for not wearing green?

When Doug and Adam started going to school, I made sure they didn’t have to learn about St. Patrick’s Day the hard way. Forewarned, they can wear green or not, but at least not be surprised if people comment if they don’t.

The name Patrick reminds me of a phonology question I’ve had for a while. In the English I speak, the /t/ in a /tr/ cluster is actually pronounced [ʧ] (i.e. the “CH” sound). So Patrick is more like Patchrick; trick like chrick; troop like chroop, etc. In phonetic terms, the [t] is becoming an affricate — that is, a sound that begins with a stop consonant (in this case [t]) and ends with a fricative (in this case [ʃ]). (I’ve blogged about affricates before, here and here.)

The same thing happens when I pronounce /d/ in a /dr/ cluster. Just as the voiceless /t/ turns into the voiceless affricate [ʧ], the voiced /d/ turns into the voiced affricate [ʤ]. That’s the stop [d] plus the “zh” fricative [ʒ], or in other words, what we English speakers know as the “J” sound. So hadron sounds like hajron; drip like jrip; droop like jroop, etc.

I’m not alone in these pronunciations; most speakers I’ve heard have also done it; and I’ve even heard of children who are learning to write spelling tr and dr as chr and jr. Why would this happen? To pronounce /tr/ or /dr/, your tongue’s starting position is with the tip just behind for top front teeth and the back of the tongue lowered. What comes next depends on how you pronounce your /r/s. If you make a “bunched /r/” like I do, then your tongue tip will lower and “bunch up” toward the back of your tongue, which will rise up toward the palate. If you have the “retroflex /r/”, then the back of your tongue will stay more or less where it is, and the tip of your tongue will move toward the palate, possibly enough that your tongue is curling backwards a little bit. (For more on bunched /r/ and retroflex /r/, read John Wells’s blog post or this explanation from Kevin Russell (scroll down to “retroflex”).) In either case, the tip of your tongue needs to move from its /t/ position. If, instead of picking it up from the /t/ position and placing it at the /r/ position, you just slide it from one to the other, air will escape through the gap between the tongue tip and the alveolar ridge (the part of your palate just behind your top front teeth). When that happens, you have a fricative.

As I think about this, a question I have is why the fricatives we get are [ʃ] and [ʒ], instead of [s] and [z]. I think it’s because a bunched /r/ is made with the tongue rising toward the palate, and [ʃ] and [ʒ] are, too. So as you get to the /r/, the air is escaping over a tongue that’s closer to the position for [ʃ, ʒ] than it is to the position for [s, z]. Supporting evidence comes from the fact that this same affrication occurs when /t, d/ come before another palatal sound: /j/. ([j] represents the consonant Y sound.) That’s how we get the pronunciation witcha for wit’ your, and didja for did ya. (And the “ch” sound in spatula and tarantula.) This hypothesis would also predict that /tr/ and /dr/ affrication occurs only with speakers who have bunched /r/, not those with retroflex /r/, so there’s a research project for someone. (If it’s been done, please leave a comment giving the source!)

However, one fact is still unexplained. It turns out that (at least for me) there is one exception to this affrication rule: When the /tr/ cluster is part of an /str/ cluster, I don’t affricate. I don’t pronounce string as [sʧrIŋ] (s-chring); I pronounce it as [strIŋ]. I don’t pronounce stray as [sʧre] (s-chray); I pronounce it as [strej]. There is another phonological rule that affects /t/ at the beginning of English words, and also has an exception when the /t/ is preceded by /s/, so maybe these two rules are related. Moreover, there are other speakers who don’t have an exception for /str/, and (as I learned in a January thread on the American Dialect Society listserv), there are even speakers who let the palatalizing of the /t/ pass on through to the /s/, resulting in [ʃʧr]. Larry Horn noted it in Michelle Obama’s plea for aid for Haiti, when she says, “Schools de[ʃʧroyed” and “parent[ʃʧr]ying to feed their children”. But those topics will have to wait for another post.

19 Responses to “Chricky Affrication”

  1. Herb Stahlke said


    A nice treatment of the palatalized variant. I’m a retroflexer, so I have s,t,r, in “string.” Peter Ladefoged must have been dealing with retroflexers when he commented in his Course that retroflexion will extend across any string of alveolars. His example was “hardened,” where the /dnd/ are all retroflexed. I also retroflex /s/ in “shrimp,” and my contrast between “shriek” and “chic” is that the /s/ of “shriek” is retroflexed while “chic” begins with a palato-alveolar fricative. You can actually hear a higher oral cavity resonance with the palato-alveolar than with the retroflexed /s/, for obvious reasons. I also have a retroflex alternation in “treasure” vs. “treas,ury,” “grocer” vs. “groc,ery,” and “luxurious” vs. “lux,ury.” In the latter forms, the alveolar occurs immediately before /r/ and gets retroflexed. Sorry about the ambiguous use of . There was someone from Ohio State, whom you probably know, who did a careful survey of retroflexion vs. palatalization. I think it might have appeared in the Working Papers.


  2. kip said

    I was fascinated when I learned about the tr/chr allophone, I think from one of your previous posts on this blog. I’ve found it interesting to see the reactions I get from people when I mention it. The example I usually use is the phrase “choo choo train”, and point out how it is actually alliterative for most English speakers. The response is sometimes flat-out denial (“No, that sounds completely different, I’ve never heard anyone say it like that ever. You’re an idiot.”), and sometimes acceptance as non-standard (“Well I guess some people do that, probably because they’re not well-educated, but *I* pronounce it *correctly*”).

    I hadn’t noticed the exception for “str”, where I definitely still pronounce the t. I’m not sure about “dr” coming out as “jr” though, it’s hard to know if the way I pronounce it normally is the way I’m doing it now that I’m thinking about it.

    • Thanks for reminding me of alliteration. I’ve been meaning to write this post for so long that there are various details that I wanted to include but forgot about when I actually wrote it. One of them is a song by They Might Be Giants on their Here Come the ABCs album. One song, “E Eats Everything”, has an alliterative line for every letter of the alphabet (or assonant, in the case of vowels). For example, “B can barely bother, ’cause all the food is wrong”; “D is just disinterested in anything you’ve got”; “F is far too fussy, and only eats with fancy wine”. Then, when we come to J: “J just likes drinking juice.”

    • Neal said

      Some more alliteration: cheap trick.

  3. I’m astonished to learn that there are places – and not even in Ireland – where a lack of green clothing on St. Patrick’s Day can attract comment. I expect that America and Australia are roughly equal in overall Irishness (both immigrant countries), but I can’t imagine that such a thing could happen here. Did you grow up in a strongly Irish community?

    • Neal said

      I moved around a bit as a kid, but the incident in first grade (or maybe it was kindergarten, come to think of it) happened in El Paso, Texas.

      • Julie said

        I think that could happen in any city in America. I grew up in a small California town…residents tended to be Portuguese, Swede-Finn, German and Mexican. We celebrated St. Patrick’s day the same way.

  4. (Following the topic drift…)

    On Tuesday I wrote this in my blog:

    Around my head I wear a green bandanna
    It’s not because I’m Irish, it’s not because I’m Fay
    And if you ask me why the heck I wear it
    I come from New York City and it’s St. Patrick’s Day
    Paddy’s Day, Paddy’s Day
    Where “Everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day”

    (to the tune of “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon”)

  5. Tom said

    I’ve been pointing out this tr->chr thing for ages as a Spanish teacher, because hearing students say “chres” for “tres” is especially bad (“not only is your “r” wrong,” thinks the Spanish teacher. “Now you can’t even say a ‘t’ normally!”). My typical exercise to correct the pronunciation of “tres” is to start by saying “tada!” in English (as in the magician’s “tadaaaa”) and then move from there to the spanish flip which is much like the way most american’s pronounce a “d” or “t” in the middle of a word.

    Anyway, nice to see I’m not crazy in thinking it’s a “ch” sound before the “r” in English — I often have a moment of doubt in the middle of teaching when I write “chree” on the board to show students how they pronounce the “t” in “tree” and stare at the board thinking, but is this really true or just my impression?

  6. […] el blog de Philip Neal Whitman (Ph.D in Linguistics) hay un post (Chricky Affrication) en el que comenta que él pronuncia trick como si fuera chrick, troop como chroop, etc. Pero […]

  7. Ogechukwu said

    1 Why is it that some of the english sounds are name fricatives and give example 2 Bilabial and labio dental sounds are named from their place of articulation explain.

  8. Mark Mandel said

    Ogechukwu@#7: What? Your question is unclear.

    I think this will answer you: English /f v θ ð s z ʃ ʒ h/ are all fricatives: /f v/ are labiodental fricatives, /θ ð/ are interdental fricatives, and so on. English has no bilabial fricatives ([Φ β]).

    In phonetics and phonology we speak of fricatives, stops, nasals, and so on, referring to manner of articulation. Similarly, we speak of bilabials, dentals, palatals, and so on, by place of articulation.

    If you don’t know these terms, look them up. Try Wikipedia as a first resource.

  9. […] 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 […]

  10. […] has written a blog post on the affrication heard in words like truck and dry (and which I’ve blogged about, too). His question: Does it happen when the tr or dr cross word boundaries, as in night rate […]

  11. […] question is explored some at and its follow-up blog posts, but I didn’t see a definitive answer for what causes the […]

  12. […] Do you remember when I was writing about how in English, a /t/ is often pronounced as [ʧ] (the “CH” sound) when it comes before an /ɹ/? Sure you do! […]

  13. fm said

    Is there a peer-reviewed publication that mentions the affrication of /dr/?

    Thank you!

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