Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Shtraight Talk

Posted by Neal on September 6, 2011

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.

60 Responses to “Shtraight Talk”

  1. I don’t think I ever say “shtreet,” and I must be extremely oblivious to those who do; the whole time I was writing my Boston Globe “Word” column, readers were writing to complain about it, and I just wasn’t hearing it. (I’m a native of northern Ohio and a longtime Bostonian — so it’s not as if I haven’t heard a lot of other pronunciation variants!)

  2. Amy Rae said

    I’ve never noticed anyone doing this – how odd!

  3. Herb Stahlke said

    As I indicated in the post you referred to, I’ve heard quite a lot of retroflexed/palato-alveolar /s/ before /tr/. While you’re right that most English speakers can’t distinguish between the two consonants, there is a distinctive difference. The retroflex has a lower oral cavity resonance because of the retroflex articulation while the palato-alveolar has a higher pitched resonance. You can hear this pretty clearly in the contrast between “chic” and “shriek.” It strikes me as a little odd that so few notice the palatalization or retroflexion in “street” when all but a few dialects retroflex /s/ consistently before /r/ in onset clusters like “shrimp.” I’ve hear [srImp] in New Orleans, and I think it might be more widespread in the South, but I haven’t heard it in the North.


    • Actually, I think I pronounce shriek with a palatal [ʃ], because I don’t do a retroflex [r].

      As for shrimp, your comment on my other post intrigued me, and I even had it in a draft of this post for a while, before saving it to another draft post for later. But isn’t shrimp supposed to start with [ʃ] or [ʂ], being spelled with ? Are you telling me that shrimp is underlyingly srimp? I agree that there is some complementary distribution here: [s] can cluster with just about any non-fricative consonant, except for [r], while [ʃ] can cluster only with [r] (ignoring a few borrowed German or Yiddish words, and ignoring the whole sound change discussed in this post). But … but … well, does spelling count for anything?

  4. Margaret S. said

    The first thing that occurs to me is an influence from German/Yiddish.

    • That’s what I thought. My family grew up in the Thumb region of Michigan and my dad and grandfather sometimes pronounce the beginning of certain “st” words as “sht”. I’ve always wondered if this is a lingering influence from German as my Great Great Great Grandparents were from Switzerland near Bern. My family have lived and farmed in the same 2-5 miles radius since then (1880s). It only appears to be a few words my dad and grandpa sometimes say it that way and sometimes don’t. I wonder if it is certain trigger words that they learned to pronounce from their ancestors.

  5. Rachel Klippenstein said

    I don’t believe I use “shtr”. If I recall rightly, I first noticed the phenomenon in one of my professors from the University of Calgary; he was from Saskatchewan.

  6. Herb Stahlke said

    As I think Durian pointed out, he found a lot more speakers with the palato-alveolar than with the retroflexed s. I’m part of the retroflexing minority. As to before , I think that’s simply as close as our spelling can get to pronunciation. That makes me wonder if the retroflex assimilation didn’t come first and then the palato-alveolar developed as a spelling pronunciation, since we don’t recognize retroflexed alveolars beyond r as English sounds. I have no problem saying that speakers who have the retroflex s have that in complementary distribution to [s]. But for those who have the palato-alveolar there is certainly a violation of the biuniqueness condition of classical phonemics and a messing up of the phonotactics of English initial clusters.


  7. Stan said

    Colloquial Irish English often adds h‘s like this, though not quite: more likely “sthraw” or even “shthraw”.

  8. EP said

    Those folks should shtraigten up their act, shtraddle their horses and shtrike out for Aushtralia.

  9. rootlesscosmo said

    One of the major characters in “The Wire,” set in Baltimore, is called Stringer Bell; many of the other actors address him as (what sounds to my ear like) “Shtring.”

  10. Jared said

    I do this all the time. As an ESL teacher, I have to be careful, too – it freaks my students out. So nowadays I actually take the time to explain it to them: the way many speakers (including my own dialect) palatalize /t/ (and /d/ too – e.g. /jrug/ for drug) before /r/ (pardon lack of IPA). As I began explaining it, I’ve realized that it’s not an obligatory variant for me – it’s quite easy, during careful speech, to revert to the unpalatalized form, although when I do my /r/ tends to be less retroflex (or even just a “trill” – influence of Spanish fluency, and ends up sounding Irish or Scottish maybe – but it’s an affectation related to working with non-native speakers, to improve their ability to understand me). As far as palatalizing (or retroflexing – I agree there’s a difference but introspectively I’m not positive which I’m doing) with the preceding /s/ as in street, straw, etc., I definitely always do it unless I’m being careful or trying to enunciate clearly. My childhood dialect was rural California (“Okie” as my dad might have said).

  11. Amanda Rachelle Warren said

    I never noticed this. I grew up in inner-city, working-class Columbus, OH, and I absolutely shtr. I have an Appalachian background as well, which is what people usually notice first, but perhaps I have a more linguistic mix than I first believed.

  12. […] Vasquez Sr. on Cathy O’Connor on CollaboratingAmanda Rachelle Warren on Shtraight TalkPhilip Whitman on The Recency Illusion and the War […]

  13. Sylvia said

    It’s very common in New York/New Jersey. I’ve been mimicking it for years because it tickles me to hear it. I was surprised to hear it the other day in a BBC show — by I don’t remember which region.

  14. Ahem. It’s on Long Island.

    But anyway, yeah, I’m pretty sure I do this, and I wasn’t aware that it was odd—I thought it was just one of those phonetic things that you never realize. (Like the idea that English /b/ is actually just unaspirated [p]. Or the [ʧɹʌk] thing that you mentioned.)

    Also, some possible thinking on Hypothesis 2: If ever it is found that a word has a [ʃʧ] cluster, it could be considered assimilation if affricates like [ʧ] are considered to be one sound and not two. I mean, granted, there’s still the physical stop, but the sounds would both fricate ([+ delayed release], if you will).

  15. […] a word of explanation why she’s doing this. (Also noted: She pronounces /str/ as [ʃtr], at least in the word […]

  16. John C. Ullum said

    I never noticed this until my wife pointed it out. I can never *not* hear it now. She has to repeat the word to me each time someone does it.

  17. Tony Moore said

    I was just bitching about this weird trend in pronunciation on Facebook and someone linked me in here. Great stuff.The first time I ever remember hearing it was with Miley Cyrus on Hannah Montana. Just glad my daughter didn’t pick it up.

  18. Stuart Holland said

    I first noticed this in some speakers of Black American English and George W. Bush, but when the announcer on public radio did it, I got upset. People look to public radio for correct standardized American pronunciations.

  19. Gordon said

    I hear this pronunciation error all the time in about 5% of my teaching credential students and it completely bugs me. I can’t help thinking that folks who say “shtreet,” “shstrong,” “dishtracted,” “inshtruction,” “dishrict,” and “shtrawberry,” sound ignorant. And can you imagine the potential student confusion when future first grade or second grade teachers give spelling tests and say “shtreet” instead of “street?” I know that dialects are not supposed to be considered wrong, but I do correct my students who are elementary teaching credential candidates. I point out the SPELLING of these words and explain that the /sh/ sound simply should not be added to words spelled with the letters str.

  20. Herb Stahlke said

    As far as I’ve been able to tell, and this is not a systematic survey, educated Black speakers of Standard English frequently retroflex /s/ before /tr/. It seems to be, as Neal pointed out, anticipatory assimilation to the retroflexion of the /r/, a very common phenomenon in American English. Ladefoged points out in A Course… that in as word like “hardened,” the retroflexion extends from the /r/ all the way to the end of the word. In other words, /r/ retroflexes adjacent coronals in both directions. Among speakers I’ve found using the retroflexed pronunciation are Condaleeza Rice, Colin Powell, and Michelle Obama. I don’t recall hearing it from the President, though. And while it seems relatively consistent among educated Black speakers of Standard English, it also extends to speaker sharing their educational and social but not ethnic status.

    Among less educated speakers, also less sensitive to race, I have also heard the retroflexion, which leads me to believe it’s spreading much like the low back vowel merger.


  21. Andrew Leitch said

    I first noticed it when my sister in law returned to Canada from grad school at Purdue and work in New Jersey more than ten years ago. It took a while but now I’m hearing it everywhere. Recently I heard it from a middle aged, white, Canadian, male, construction superintendent. That was the most surprising.
    When movie characters, such as those described above, use it, I think they are saying: Only pussies and mamma’s boys would say straight when you can say shtraight. Straight is for fastidious librarians; shtraight is for guys who know how to load a gun and stuff a 20 down a shtripper’s g-string.
    It’s an anti-lisp. It says: Not only am I not gay, but I’m almost unbelievably shtraight.

  22. I’ve noticed this for years now and it drives me crazy. I first noticed it watching Top Model, where Tyra would say “SHTReet” instead of “street.” Regardless of whether it’s assimilation, it’s not correct. There is no “H” there. I find it exSHTREEMLY disHTRACTING when people use this pronunciation.

  23. […] One of my posts from 2011 has been gathering some new comments recently, and not spam comments, either. The post was about the pronunciation of “str” clusters as [ʃtr], and a reader named Andrew Leitch left this comment earlier this week: […]

  24. Carol W said

    I mostly hear it at the beginnings of words, or when there is a preceding /k/ as in “extra.” The sound of it from speakers I hear (generally in online videos, so I don’t know their origin) feels to me like the assimilation to the r… the tongue is already heading to the r as in “sriracha” and the /t/ just blips in during the journey. Sadly, I have a misophonia-type level of intolerance for this sound.

    And I do speak German, and comparable cluster does not bother me AT ALL there. For one thing, it sounds quite different — more of a pure “sht” or “shtr” (some commenters above described the difference with correct symbols). AND it is correct pronunciation. But this increasing phenomenon in English drives me absolutely nuts. I’ve actually tried telling myself that the person momentarily spoke a German word to try and de-sensitize myself to it, but it’s not working… probably because of the difference in the ‘sh’ sound.

    • Neal said

      Are you a native speaker of German? If not, I salute your phonological skills! I understand what people say when they tell me there is a difference, and when I read their IPA transcriptions, but my ear isn’t good enough to hear it.

  25. Eleanor said

    I’ve just listened to a video report on the flooding and avalanche in Columbia where the speaker says at 29 sec “rocks, trees and piles of mud…” – pronounced “rock, shtrees…” In the same sentence at 31 seconds she says “deshtructive landslide”. Where are people learning this aberrant pronunciation? Does it mainly reveal a lack of education, say, from people on television, which young people then pick up and carry through to adulthood? Like others, I also find it nerve-wracking to hear but I think the reaction has to do with a fear that inadvertently one might actually say it since it seems to happen almost naturally to those who do say it. I don’t think it’s intentional. Interesting phenomenon very worth looking into.

    • Neal said

      Interesting: another word-boundary-crossing example of this “s-retraction” as I’ve learned it’s called. In one of these posts (maybe this one; I haven’t re-read the post yet) I had an example from Michelle Obama talking about the Haiti earthquake, with “parentsh trying to find” their children.

  26. Stuart Holland said

    I had this conversation with others at an international radio conference recently. One of the people there (from Kentucky) asked for a demonstration of the difference, and said she couldn’t hear any difference between str and shtr. It reminded me of when our Spanish speaking son moved in with us and he could not understand why I could not reproduce the subtle differences in the way he was speaking Spanish. At a certain point, our ears don’t easily pick up different pronunciations. I’m not saying it can’t be done, I’m just saying it is difficult.

  27. Herb Stahlke said

    I suspect this retroflex assimilation keeps going as long as there’s a coronal available, regardless of morphology.

  28. Jane said

    I googled this, because it drives me NUTS! Cris Collinsworth, Jay Leno, The Property Brothers (HGTV) are just a few of many who add the “h” between the s and t. My own sister said Nortshtrom, and I almost went ballistic on her! I believe I’m a person that is easily irritated when people change the traditional way of speaking. Its the same with vocal fry. Some people don’t even notice it, but it makes me cringe–I will change the station when I hear it. I know that NPR had so many complaints about the sponsorship announcer, they replaced her with a gal with a much clearer speaking voice. I just wish it would go away!

  29. Selene said

    The ‘SHTR’ habit has been driving me crazy too! I googled and found this thread…and then was surprised AND pleased that it has been continuing for four years! In addition to the letter ‘s’, I have also noticed at least one friend pronouncing a soft ‘c’ in the same way….”groceries” becomes “grosheries”. I don’t recall this having been listed yet as one of the symptoms of this linguistic plague.

    I am not a linguist (only studied the subject freshman year in college), but on a very basic, layman’s level, could the sound of “shtr” be appealing in some odd, absurd way? Like a lush, yummy (for lack of a better descriptor) sound that connotes something very pleasing? This is just a gut feeling and I’m lacking examples but maybe someone out there knows what I’m trying to describe…?


    • Herbert Stahlke said

      I have sh, or, more precisely, the retroflex s (tongue tip curled back) in grocery. It’s a case of assimilation. The second syllable is /sri/, and the /s/ becomes retroflexed like the /r/. This thread has also discussed the sh variant, which is a different sound from the retroflexed /s/, and I don’t know if the sh (palato-alveolar s) occurs in this word for speakers with that variant.


      • seleneplatt said

        Well, I googled ‘groceries’ and generally it’s known to have three syllables, not two. gives an alternate pronunciation with two syllables, but it seems that three is more common/correct…

        My bigger question is…do I become a “Grammar Nazi” and point this out to people (even under the guise of trying to understand the phenomenon rather than to correct the world), or do I just suck it up and try to not let it bother me?? 🙂

      • Herbert Stahlke said

        At the risk of seeming a “linguistic nazi” let me try to clarify what I was saying before. The syllable can be defined both orthographically and phonologically. Orthographically we have standard rules of syllable division that we learn in school and that editors follow that tell us how to divide words in print. Phonologically, syllables are units of speech. Roughly each spoken syllable represents a peak sonority, usually a vowel, and the consonants before and after it. How these are divided is not as clearly understood as in orthography. A good, if extreme example, is “Worcester,” orthographically three syllables but in speech just two, as in “Wooster, Mass.” The pronunciation of /s/ that this thread has been about works in speech, not in print. In connected speech, “groceries” has two syllables, although in careful pronunciation it may have three. It’s the two-syllable pronunciation that will lend itself to the /sh/ or retroflexed /s/ assimilation. In the three-syllable pronunciation, in my speech as well, the /s/ remains /s/.

        As to whether to correct people’s pronunciation, that’s up to you, but keep in mind that pronunciation changes, and it changes by means of shifts like the one we’ve been discussing. Do you pronounce cot and caught the same or different? I’m from Michigan, and for me they’re different. My kids grew up in central Indiana, and for them they’re the same. Or pin and pen? Or many other cases you’ve probably heard as regional variants.


  30. Kpop said

    This is a huge pet peeve of mine. I think it is a horrible example when newscasters and the First Lady have what I would term, “lazy tongue.” Learn how to speak or don’t get a job that requires spoken word as the main point of your job.

    • seleneplatt said

      And while we’re on the topic of newscasters with poor diction, when did it become ok for newscasters to have speech impediments? I live in the Phila area and there’s one guy, Tom McDonald, on a local station who has a lisp and swallows his L’s…it’s incredibly annoying and I can only wonder why he never went to speech therapy as a kid! And there are others, he’s not alone. I had a lisp and was sent to speech therapy in 1st and 2nd grade and worked through it. Newscasters work to eliminate any geography-labelling accent, so why don’t they also do speech therapy to attain proper diction? Is Baba Wawa (Barbara Walters) to blame? I agree with Kpop above that it’s “lazy tongue” and completely unacceptable in that profession. 🙂

      • Herb Stahlke said

        Sorry to be a year and a half late on this, but I missed it when you posted. What you refer to as “swallowing his L’s” is a feature of some Philadelphia-area dialects, as it is of some southeastern British dialects. It’s a further development, I think, of the final “dark” or velarized /l/ that most dialects of English have. /l/ at the beginning of a syllable, as in “lip” or “slip” has, for many speakers. the back of the tongue lowered and so it has a clearer /l/ quality. /l/ as in “fill” or “pool” has the back of the tongue raised towards the velum, the soft palate, and this gives it a dark quality the sounds a little like combining /l/ with /u/ at the same time, which is what’s happening in terms of pronunciation. If you then drop the /l/ part of the sound, you’re left with the /u/ sound, which in syllable final position is more like a /w/.. So “mill” becomes “miw” and “fill” becomes “fiw.” Just normal sound change going on.

      • Neal said

        “Swallowing one’s L’s” ambiguously refers to velarizing ones that aren’t typically velarized, possibly vocalizing them as well (i.e. turning them into W’s as Herb notes), or pronouncing them as a uvular nasal consonant.

  31. jsmclaren said

    Ryan Spillbourghs, a former Colorado Rockies baseball player is now part of their TV broadcast team. He always says shtrike/shtrikeout and refers to players being on a shtreak. Drives me crazy.

  32. Sooz Ali said

    I am researching “the evolution of American English diction in an effort to point out preservation of sound for classical singing in English Art Song in a journal. I am very excited to come across this website. The other sounds I continue to “correct” with singing students are the two distinct sounds in “cot-caught” – which have merged – and as mentioned, the “pin-pen, Glinn-Glenn, etc. I am having difficulty finding a defense of the preservation of the non-assimilated sounds…would appreciate any direction for research.

    • Herb Stahlke said

      I’ll tackle this as a linguist, a choral singer, and a sometime choral conductor. Among conductors, “diction” is a term of art meaning “pronunciation.” (I’ve occasionally been taken to task for using it in linguistic discussions.)

      Choral diction differs from speech because it balances a tension between musicality and comprehensibility. German and French, for example, have no trilled /r/, but in good choral diction both languages use a trilled rather than a uvular /r/. Vowel pronunciation in sung American English can get tricky because of how we reduce unstressed syllables in speech, reducing most vowels to schwa or something close to it Schwa doesn’t tend to work well in sung English because syllables tend not to get reduced, except in chant and recitative. In song, an unstressed syllable may come, for example, on an eighth note and a stressed syllable on a quarter note or longer, but the difference between an eighth and a quarter is not enough to induce the sort of reduction that takes place in speech. In the spoken section of Charles Ives’ “Charlie Rutlage,” for example, some reduction may occur, but not in the sung section.

      If you conduct in the Upper Midwest or the Northeast, neither of the vowel mergers you mention occur, and so you’d have no problem with your singers. In Central Indiana, where there is a lot of variation in both mergers, you would have to train them carefully. Rather like the perennial problem of American English post-vocalic /r/ or Midlands diphthongal versions of /u/, it takes an experienced choir to master the sounds you would want for good choral diction.

      Assimilation is another matter. Assimilation is often tied to stress pattern, so, for example, the final /n/ of the prefix “non-” usually does not assimilate because “non-” is stressed. The final /n/ of “in-,” on the other hand, does assimilate because “in-” is unstressed, So in “non-comparable” we have /n/, but in “incomparable” we have /ng/, the velar nasal, because it’s unstressed. Because of the highly metrical nature of most choral music, we don’t have unstressed syllables in the sense we do in speech, and so assimilation is not forced. Whether to assimilate or not in a particular word of phrase is a choice the conductor makes on the basis of musicality vs. comprehensibility.

      I realize I haven’t provided a solution to the problem; I’ve simply left it up to the discretion of the conductor. I have long since given up arguing the matter with my conductor.

  33. Dave Wible said

    I am noticing this more and more, since I noticed Michelle Obama and Bernie Sanders doing it. Seems like every week a guest on Meet the Press does it, including Jeffrey Goldberg, Editor of The Atlantic. Are they inspired by Sean Connery?

  34. Herb Stahlke" said

    Here’s a possible early dating of s-retroflexion, as in “shtreet.” On the news report of Chuck Berry’s death today there was a clip of him talking about his music, and he used the phrase “main street,” which he pronounced “main shtreet.” I couldn’t tell from the clip whether he retroflexed or palatalized, but it clearly was one of the two. If he did not pick up this pronunciation later in life, then it was current in 1920s and ’30s St. Louis, where he grew up.

  35. Timmy Yoobar said

    I make the “sh” sound in “str” words 🙂 It’s epic pwnage, try it out some time y’all!

  36. Stuart Federhart Holland said

    I am part of a wide network of people in the radio industry. I brought this issue up at a gathering and a woman from Texas, does this all the time, could not hear what she was doing. I suspect that eventually we will find this mispronunciation listed as acceptable in our dictionaries.

  37. Michael Meyer said

    I recently commented on a video of Hasan Piker, pointing out his pronunciation of the “s-t-r” combination as “shtr” – like Michelle Obama. Hasan responded saying something like “my mind is blown, must be something I picked up when I taught myself English pronunciation.” Needles to say I got pretty harshly condemned by an army of angry Pikettes who insisted I was being petty, cruel and ignorant, citing his original Turkish language as somehow indicating I was culturally insensitive (I had no idea he was ESL). The very fact that his English is so incredibly well spoken and he is such an intelligent young man is why I noticed and was so “dishtracted” by this little what I called a “speech tick” – perhaps this went too far, I also implied it distracted from his political message. But regardless I had to delete my comment because the condemning replies kept coming and coming. Quite a sensitive topic. Not sure why it bothers me so much. Why should I care or judge the way people choose to pronounce things?

    • Diana Endo said

      Because listening to it is like nails on chalkboard. People were upset because they misunderstand linguistic variations as racist. Someone even posted on a comment board about different English speech patterns when they were speaking about the d to t change, primarily in black English such as changing bread or salad to breat or salat. This comment drift was in the middle of a very long list of other comments, such as non-rhotic, southern American, etc. I believe this commenter was offended by the entire thread, even though the comment was as a response to the d to t thing.
      My apologies, as I’m not a linguistic person, I can’t do the speech sounds you guys do . It’s just an interest of mine. BTW, I’ve recently been hearing the w pronounced in the word sword.

  38. This “shtr” seems to be very common in New Zealand. I hear it daily on the television….news reporters , weather reporters…”there will be shtrong winds through the Cook Shtrait tomorrow.” Our previous Prime minister was always talking about Aushtralia . and planning to get things done Shtraight away. It irritated me a lot, but I decided that language/pronunciation is constantly changing and so it doesn’t bother me anymore (as much).

    • Selene Platt said

      I find it so ironic that my choral director is constantly correcting our diction and pronunciation of various sounds and words in the songs we sing, yet he is one of the biggest perpetrators of this speech habit! I feel like pointing it out to him but it would be embarrassing, and as many have said here, it seems perfectly legit to those who do it. Ugh…. I am resigned to simply suffering 😦

  39. Diana Endo said

    It’s driving me nuts. It’s spread to broadcast and many (too many) actors, usually under 40. I’ve heard a few sht sounds for st, but this is in people with strong shtr. This truck, for example, will also be pronounced thish-truck. A perfect example is Star Trek Discovery ‘s lead actress, first episode. I was so distracted. This must sound normal to the folks running the show. Since it’s a show with young actors, it’s heard in others but her speech so shtrong with it to be nearly scream inducing. Her thishhh- traitor was about where I stopped watching, but not for those reasons. I pictured older network executives blowing their stacks during the premier. I don’t think it will go back. Unfortunately, it’s here to shtay.

  40. It’s also a local thing, right here in DC: The Mayor of Washington, DC, pronounces the name of the territory she’s in charge of as the *Dishtrict of Columbia*. She’s Muriel Bowser, and you can google her all over the place. Needless to say, she uses the word quite often….

  41. Neal said

    You know, this would probably be a good place to mention that I wrote a script for the Grammar Girl podcast on this topic.

  42. Barbara Falconer Newhall said

    I first heard the S-back in the 1990s as a newspaper reporter interviewing academic women. It seemed to me like an affectation that academic women had adopted for some reason.

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