Shh! The Sh Is Real

The shtruggle on the shtreet is real.

When Obama was President, some folks rolled their eyes whenever Michelle Obama spoke. That’s OK, other folks had rolled their eyes when George W. did the same thing.

What thing? Pronouncing words that begin with S-T-R as if they began with S-H-T-R.

Shtrange. Shtrong. Shtraight. Shtrip.

I find it shtrenuous to say these words this way — as if I’m trying to articulate past a plastic mouthguard or a wad of dental gauze — but apparently that’s not the case for everyone.

Linguists call this pronunciation S-retraction or S-backing,
because the SH sound is made
with the tongue slightly farther back inside the mouth than it is for the S sound.
So you’re moving the S farther back in your mouth: S-backing.
– Neil Whitman, Quick and Dirty Tips

Once you start listening for it, you’ll hear it everywhere. It’s most common at the beginning of words, but I’ve started to hear it from some American commentators even when the S-T-R comes in the middle of a word.

Inshtruction. Deshtroy. Reshtrict.

Where does it come from? Opinions vary. (I bet you didn’t see that coming.) It’s pretty clear it isn’t a shtructural thing in the language. Some mention Sean Connery (who got an odd start in life by having to come to terms with the contradiction between the spelling and the pronunciation of his own name) but a more-serious shtream of scholarship thinks it might be a transfer from similar pronunciations in German or Polish. Others think it started in the shtreetwise African-American community and spread shtrategically from there.

Where is it going? While I shtrive to be down with changes to the language (Or was that “Down with changes to the language!”?), I think this one is long gone. The horse has left the barn: Across North America this pronunciation is gaining shtrength, making big shtrides. Indeed, as noted (perhaps ironically) by some linguishts, the SH sound is spreading to S-T words without the R.

Shtill. Undershtand. Shtudy. Plashtic. Shtart.

Will it shpread to S-P-R words? I wouldn’t bet againsht it, but we’ll have to keep an ear on the Shtates.

But although I’ve shtretched enough to learn to live with this — I’ve shtopped wanting to shtrangle or shtrike shpeakers of this ilk — I can’t say I’ve learned to embrace it. I admit it shtill causes me some shtress.

On the other hand, I’m shtunningly grateful that this wasn’t wideshpread when Elvis was recording. Imagine him trying to hold the line in Stuck on You. By the time he’d done shake-a, shake-a, s(h)ugar, how else would stick and stuck have come out?

You can shake an apple off an apple tree
Shake-a, shake-a, sugar,
But you’ll never shake me
No-sir-ee, uh, uh
I’m gonna shtick like glue,
Shtick . . . because I’m
Shtuck on you

No-sir-ee. I shtill have something to be grateful for.



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16 Responses to Shh! The Sh Is Real

  1. Tom Watson says:

    I have a friend who came here from Iran in the 1980s. When he and his family arrived they knew no English. The letter S was hard for him. For example, “school” would come out “es-skool” and “shoe” would come out “es-shoo.”

    Sho shugah, I gesh it’s all in the glotis…or somewhere.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Tom – 🙂 Interesting. When speaking English, hispanics are noted for substituting a soft-s for a z-sound (Baseball hass been good to me.) and with the x-sound (Lucy, you got some esplainin’ to do.) and those sounds are made in different parts of the mouth. It’s complicated, I think. I also know that there are some vowel sounds in French that I just can’t make, no how, no way.

  2. Jim Taylor says:

    Dear Shir or Madam,
    May we asshume that thish (how in hell did you get shpellcheck to accept all those mishshpellings? I have to retype them several times before shpellcheck yieldsh.) trend ish likely to result in the extincshun of frontwardsh sh shounds? If so, pleashe provide a shchedule for said demizhe.
    JIm T

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim – 🙂 My blog platform lets me know about misspellings but doesn’t presume to override me. It knows who’s in charge. As for schedule – faster than I think, I bet. New pronunciations get trendy, old ones start sounding prissy, and boom it’s done.

      • barbara says:

        “Me and her/him think so too.” (My buggabear of the decade!!)

        • Isabel Gibson says:

          Barbara – You’re right. When will people learn that the first-person pronoun should come last? The order in English is clear: Someone Else, You, Me. So “him and me” for goodness sake. 🙂

  3. John Whitman says:

    Isabel – not being a fan of the Obamas, I don’t think I have ever heard Michelle speak so this is all new to me. However, if an Englishman from the time of the Vikings were to arrive in modern day England, I doubt that many except language scholars would understand his Olde (old-ah) English, that was very much like German to my ear. Apparently languages evolve over time both in content as new words are added and in pronunciation as population content changes.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      John – You’re entirely right: Everything about language changes over time from spelling to pronunciation to usage. Hard to keep up.

  4. Dave Jobson says:

    When you need two hearing aids to get the message this is not an issue. Just being able to successfully guess every word is enough.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Dave – LOL Yes, our standards/expectations/hopes change. As someone we both know used to say, “I got up without grunting that time.” Just as if it were an achievement. Which it was (and now is, for me).

  5. Ian Hepher says:

    Well, sit!

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