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.

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29 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.

  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: […]

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