How S-Backing Causes People to Pronounce 'Street' as 'Schtreet'

Neal Whitman, Writing for
5-minute read
Episode #509
s-backing linguistics


Reading note: Read /ʧ/ as “chuh,” and /ʃ/ as “shuh.”

Reading note: Read /i/ as a long E as in see, and /I/ as a short I as in sit

I need to start this next segment with a warning. I’m going to talk about something that you may never have noticed, but after listening to this segment, you won’t be able to not notice it. Are you ready? OK. Listen to how I pronounce this next sentence: I painted a shtripe shtraight down the middle of the shtreet, then shtruck a pose as I shtraddled the line. 

Some People Move the S Back

Did you catch it? I pronounced the all words that began with an STR consonant cluster as if they actually began with SH. Instead of stripe, street, straight, struck, and straddled, I said shtripe, shtreet, shtraight, shtruck, and shtraddled

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. When I first read about it, I didn’t know what the author was talking about, but pretty soon I heard it for myself. For a while I was keeping track of the various people I heard, but there are too many for me to keep track of now. 

Is It a Mispronunciation?

Some speakers consider this a mispronunciation, given that the words are spelled STR, not SHTR. That’s true enough, but let’s widen our focus a little bit. Let’s look at words that start with just TR, like truck, trap, and transmogrify. If you listen carefully, you can hear that for many speakers, the T is actually pronounced more like a CH sound. 

Listen again: Instead of saying [tr]uck, [tr]ap, and [tr]ansmogrify, I’m saying [ʧr]uck, [ʧr]ap, and [ʧr]ansmogrify. Kids who are just learning to spell will sometimes even write these words with a CH instead of a T. Except for transmogrify—by the time they’re trying to spell that, their spelling skills are probably advanced. The point is, nobody calls this a mispronunciation. If they notice it at all, they figure it’s just how T is pronounced when it comes before an R. In the same way, for speakers who say shtripe and shtreet, this is just how S is pronounced when it comes before TR. 

Pronunciation Changes Are Common

Changes in pronunciation like these happen all the time in every spoken language. In fact, sound changes like this one are the kind of language change that has been studied the most intensively and for the longest time. In the old days, we could only study sound changes on dead languages, such as the changes that Latin underwent as it evolved into the modern Romance languages, or changes that happened to archaic Germanic languages as they evolved into modern ones such as English, German, and Swedish. Nowadays, though, we can observe sound changes as they happen. If you’ve encountered S-backing, you’ve been hearing language history in the making. 


About the Author

Neal Whitman, Writing for Grammar Girl

Neal Whitman PhD is an independent writer and consultant specializing in language and grammar and a member of the Reynoldsburg school board. You can find him at literalminded.wordpress.com.