The Grammarphobia Blog

Shtreet smarts

Q: In the past few years, I’ve encountered a curious pronunciation I hadn’t noticed before: when some people say words containing “str,” such as “street,” it sounds as if they’re saying “shtr,” as in “shtreet.” This sound bugs me, but no one else seems to notice. Am I hearing things? Is this a regional or cultural dialect?

A: No, you’re not hearing things. Or rather you are, but the things are real.

You’ve observed something that language experts say is a fairly common variation in the way some Americans speak: the letters “str” are pronounced as “shtr.”

So the speakers seem to be saying things like “shtreet,” “shtrong,” “shtring, “shtrategy,” and even “Aushtralia” and “indushtry.”

Many linguists and phonologists have done scholarly papers on the subject, most of which are understandable only by other linguists and phonologists.

You ask whether this is an example of “a regional or cultural dialect.” Professor Michael Shapiro of Brown University, in an article in the journal American Speech in the spring of 1995, said the phenomenon “seems to be neither dialectal nor regional,” since he’s noticed it in people from all parts of the country.

He sees a parallel in the way some (perhaps older) Americans pronounce the “s” in “Israel” not as “z” but as “zh” (like the “s” in “vision”).

The phenomenon is called “assimilation,” because it has to do with the way different sounds (in this case “s” and “tr”) affect one another when they’re combined.

Another, more familiar case of assimilation happens with the letter “n,” which often sounds like “m” when it’s found in the combinations “nb,” “np,” and “nm.”

This kind of assimilation results in pronunciations like “cramberry” (cranberry), “grampa” (granpa), and “gramma” (granma).

I hope this is helpful and leaves you more “shtreetwise.”

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