Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Srimp and Jritos at the Groshery Store

Posted by Neal on September 15, 2011

In my second post on the pronunciation of “tr” as [ʧr] (i.e. as “chr”), my question was this: If the /ʧ/ and /ʤ/ (that is, the “ch” and “j” sounds) are phonemes in English, then why don’t English speakers think of words like trick and drape as chrick and jrape? (At least, why don’t the English speakers who pronounce them that way think of them as chrick and jrape? Some speakers do pronounce /tr/ and /dr/ as [tʰr] and [dr].) To put it in phonological terms, why would someone who didn’t know the alphabet perceive [ʧrIk] as /trIk/ and not /ʧrIk/? Or [ʤreip] as /dreip/ and not /ʤreip/? In fact, children who are just learning to spell sometimes do spell [ʧr] as , and [ʤr] as . However, English speakers eventually come around to perceiving [ʧr] and [ʤr] as /tr/ and /dr/. One reason is that as they learn the spelling system, they see that that’s how [ʧr] and [ʤr] are spelled. Another reason is that if English allowed the affricates /ʧ/ and /ʤ/ to form consonant clusters with /r/, we’d have a strange phonological system on our hands. In it, all the plosive consonants other than /t/ and /d/ could form clusters with /r/, while /t/ and /d/ for mysterious reasons could not. Meanwhile, we have /ʧ/ and /ʤ/, which do not normally form consonant clusters, able for some reason to form them with just the consonant /r/.

With that in mind, consider the consonant cluster [ʃr], in words like shrimp, shriek, shred, shroud, shrew, and shrike. I hadn’t given it much thought before, but comments from Herb Stahlke in some of the posts linked to this one have got me to thinking about it. Like the affricate /ʧ/, the sibilant /ʃ/ forms clusters only with one consonant: /r/. You do get [ʃt] if it’s followed by an /r/, as I discussed in a recent post, but speakers generally perceive that as /str/. And you don’t get words like shkop, shtame, or shpoonkle (oh, wait…). German or Yiddish borrowings like schlep, Schwinn, Schmidt, and schnitzel are acceptable, but you don’t find many new words created that begin with /ʃl/, /ʃw/, /ʃm/, or /ʃn/. On the other hand, the sibilant /s/ can form a cluster with several other consonants. It can form them with voiceless plosives: spit, stick, sky. It can form them with nasals: smack, snoot. It can form them with glides: swoop, and in some dialects, words like suit. (See this post on Dialect Blog for more on American English “yod-dropping”.) It can form them with liquids: slide and … Oops. It can form clusters with lateral liquids, i.e. /l/. It can’t form them with retroflex liquids, i.e. /r/. How many of you pronounce the Sri in Sri Lanka as [sri], and not [ʃri]? I try to, but it feels weird.

So by the same phonological reasoning that leads us to perceive [ʧr] and [ʤr] as /tr/ and /dr/, why don’t we perceive [ʃr] as /sr/? In other words, why don’t we have a system in which /s/ can form clusters with both kinds of lateral liquids, and note that before /r/, /s/ is realized as [ʃ], instead of having a mysterious gap where /sr/ should be? Well, in this case, the spelling points toward hearing it the way it actually sounds: Words like shrimp, shriek, shred, shroud, shrew, and shrike are actually spelled with . But if it weren’t for the spelling, how would speakers perceive it? (Stahlke observes that some Southern American English speakers actually do say “srimp”, but what about other words beginning with “shr”?)

There is at least one word where speakers may perceive something pronounced as [ʃ] as an /s/. Listen to this classic Sesame Street video:

Did you hear it? “Ten tiny turtles on the telephone, talking to the groshery men”? That’s how I heard it as a kid, but gradually wrote it off to my imagination, as I grew up in a family that pronounced it gro[s]ery. Years later, though, I learned that many speakers unquestionably do pronounce grocery with [ʃ]. On her blog, Jan Freeman wrote:

But ever since I started reading similar criticisms of my native Ohio speech oddities, I’ve been wary of ascribing motives to people’s pronunciations. I grew up with “mirror” pronounced MERE and grocery as GROSHERY. But my parents didn’t use those pronunciations because they were uneducated; they used them because everyone did.

As I wrote this post, I realized that I had an explanation for this pronunciation: If you elide the unstressed schwa in the middle syllable, you’re left with an /s/ right next to an /r/. (Linguists call such a deletion syncope.) Looking at it that way, I see that gro[ʃ]ry is no more unusual than C’lumbus, Ohio, or Web’los. But if you keep the unstressed syllable, then both gro[ʃ]ry and C’lumbus may strike you as a bit odd.

Now Freeman may or may not have recognized that her pronunciation of grocery contained a [ʃ] (feel free to chime in, Jan), but here’s a speaker for whom [ʃ] is just how you pronounce /s/ before an /r/. A commenter going by the handle embolini9 responded to a query on, “How do you pronounce ‘grocery’?” , writing, “I’m from New England, and I’ve never heard the ‘sh’ sound. I’ve always said ‘gross-ree.'” But a few comments later, embolini9 returned to write, “Oh wait! I just said it out loud, and I guess sometimes I do say ‘groh-shree.’ Maybe more often than not… yup, I definitely say ‘sh.’ Now I’m the crazy girl sitting at her desk saying ‘grocery’ to herself.” (The rest of the comments are fun,too, ranging over a lot of regional pronunciations, an dsurprisingly little peeving.)

This case of syncope feeding a phonetic alteration brings me back to the posts on “shtr” and “chr/jr” that got me onto this subject. I was listening to the Sept. 7, 2011 “Radium Girls” episode of the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast, and one of the hosts pretty consistently pronounced str as [ʃtr]. There were one or two occasions when she didn’t, but one of the words that got a [ʃtr] was history. She pronounced the word historic with an [s], but history with a [ʃ]. Why? In historic, the middle syllable is stressed, so the /st/ is separated from the /r/ by a vowel. But in history, the host syncopated the unstressed medial vowel, leaving the /st/ right next to the /r/, eligible for the [ʃtr] pronunciation. As for “chr” and “jr”, I remembered way back to when Doug was three or four years old, and his favorite lunch was a turkey sandwich with Doritos. He tended to syncopate that initial unstressed syllable, leaving the /d/ next to the /r/, eligible for the [ʤr] affrication. As a result, he would ask for a turkey sandwich and “Jritos”.

14 Responses to “Srimp and Jritos at the Groshery Store”

  1. Jonathon said

    The anecdote in the penultimate paragraph is a great example of how our intuitions frequently contradict the facts.

    And it’s interesting how variable palatalization before [r] is from one individual to another. I say gro[ʃ]ry but nur[s]ery and mi[z]ery. My wife says nur[ʃ]ry, and I had a professor who says mi[ʒ]ry. As you said, it seems to depend on whether someone syncopates an intervening schwa.

    • Neal said

      Right now I’m wondering if my own intuitions contradict my own facts. Today, I’ve been the guy wandering around saying “grocery,” fast and slow, by itself and in phrases like “I’m going to the grocery store.” I think in fast speech, I’ve probably said “groshery” and not noticed it, and heard it and not noticed it, too. I also think I’ve said “gro[s]ry,” syncopating the schwa but still not retracting the /s/. So now I’m wondering under exactly what circumstances I notice the “groshery” pronunciation. Is it when people don’t syncopate the schwa and still turn the /s/ into [ʃ]?

  2. BeSlayed said

    Just FYI: the “Sri” of “Sri Lanka” was in fact originally (i.e. in Sanskrit) [ʃri] rather than [sri]. I’m not actually sure which of these is the “official” Sri Lankan pronunciation.

  3. BeSlayed said

    Also, I think English may really have a *phonological* constraint on /sr/, even if it doesn’t phonetically. Certainly there was such a rule at some point in time in English, as this would explain the “intrusive ‘t'” in “stream” (which derives from a PIE source with “sr-“). Whether this is still actually active at the phonological level, I don’t know… but if you present me with something like “srimp” in a non-fast-speech context, I’m not sure I’d really accept it as a possible English sequence.

    [And I’m guessing a lot of the /ʃr/- words derive ultimately from /sk/ clusters that were palatalised at some point in time in Old English (including the word “English” i.e “englisc” itself).]

    • Neal said

      Thanks for the wider Indo-European perspective, Ben. I don’t think the /sr/ -> [str] rule is still active, being of such ancient origin. You have to go back to before Germanic branched off before you get *sr- instead of *str-, don’t you?

      As for the /ʃr/- words, you’re right. All the ones I checked went back to Old English sc- spellings — NOT, interestingly enough, sr- spellings. Further evidence of [ʃr]- clusters being underlyingly /ʃr/- from the beginning, and not /sr/.

      • beslayed said

        Thanks for the reply. Yeah, I doubt that there’s any /sr/ -> [str] rule that’s still active, but if that rule was a manifestation of a constraint against /sr/ (at least in the phonology), I could imagine that that constraint might still be active. So that phonological */sr/ even if phonetically [sr] is ok. But yes, you have to go back to proto-Germanic for the /sr/ -> /str/ change.

  4. Ran said

    I say grocery with /ʃ/. Until now, I thought of it as a result of yod-coalescence (cf. glacier‘s /ʃ/, or hosiery‘s /ʒ/), but given that it’s <c>, not <ci>, and no one seems to pronounce it /sj/, only /s/ or /ʃ/, your explanation makes more sense. But oddly, I actually say it as three syllables, gro-ce-ry, so I guess I must have picked up the /ʃ/ from the two-syllable pronunciation and kept it in the three-syllable pronunciation. (I mean, I’m sure it usually comes out of my mouth as two syllables, but I mean how I pronounce it in my head, or how I’d pronounce it if I were hyperarticulating: I’d say “groshery”, not “grossery”, even when pronouncing the “e”.)

    • Neal said

      I made my reply to Jonathon before I found your comment in my spam trap. Your 3-syllable “groshery” is what I was thinking about in my response.

      • Ran said

        Additional data-point: on the radio today I heard “grocer” also said with [ʃ] (which is probably also how I’d say it, if it were a word I used). Its schwa certainly wasn’t syncopated, though its pronunciation could always be contaminated by that of “grocery” (among speakers whose [ʃ] is a phonemic /ʃ/).

  5. Philip Whitman said

    I don’t understand all the linguistic explanations, but to me, when someone says groshery instead of grocery, I just think he has a bad lisp. Kind of like Sean Connery’s.

  6. Herb Stahlke said


    I’ve actually got an alternation between palato-alveolar /S/ and retroflex /s,/ in words treasure/treasury and luxurious/luxury, and it illustrates the syncope you discussed. But then I’m a pretty consistent retroflexer before /r/. Ladefoged must have been thinking of consistent retroflexers too when he notes in his Course in Phonetics that in words like “hardened” the /dnd/ are all retroflexed by assimilation.


  7. Ellen K. said

    I find it interesting the some people (apparently) say groshery (3 syllables) as distinct from groshry (2 syllables) or grosery. Me, groshry, two syllables. “Grosery” makes me think of the old Dunkin Donuts jingle. Groshery (three syllables) is a pronunciation I’ve never noticed (which, of course, doesn’t mean I’ve never heard it).

  8. For what it’s worth, Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary lists (and marks as “Southern”) alternate [sr] pronunciations for most English words that begin with [ʃr]. Even personal experience confirms that “shrimp” is not the only word that Southerners say that way: I can still recall my two of my grade-school teachers speaking with strong local accents, pronouncing “shrub” as [ʃrɘˑb] and “shrink” as [srɪŋk].

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