Etymology Pronunciation Usage


Q: On one of Pat’s WNYC segments, she was asked about the pronunciation of “street” as SHTREET. She mentioned that you have a posting on the blog about this, but I wonder if the pronunciation may have been influenced by German.

A: You bring up a very interesting point.

In standard German, the letter combination “st” is pronounced SHT at the beginning of a syllable. You can hear this when a German speaker says a word like strahlen (to shine), or a compound like überstrahlen (to outshine).

The same thing is true, by the way, with the German “sp,” which sounds like SHP at the beginning of a syllable. You can hear this in words like sprechen (to speak) and besprechen (to discuss).

This shushing, as if an “h” had been inserted, wasn’t always part of standard German. It apparently developed as a regional pronunciation in Upper Saxony and spread to other German dialects several hundred years ago.

Like most language changes, this shift in pronunciation met resistance along the way. In fact, we found a 1935 article showing that the SHT and SHP pronunciations were being discouraged by German-language instructors as late as the mid-19th century.

The article, written by Charles T. Carr and published in the Modern Language Review, examined books on German intended for English audiences in the 18th and early 19th centuries.

Several of the grammar books and readers said that “st” and “sp” should be pronounced just as written, and warned against the Upper Saxon pronunciations SHT and SHP.

Yet for some reason the pronunciation not only thrived but is now standard German. Could this happen in English? Ours is a Germanic language, so this is certainly a legitimate question.

Already, as we said in our blog posting on the subject, many American speakers pronounce “st” as SHT and this is considered fairly common. Research has shown that this speech pattern is not regional but widely spread.

Nevertheless, we won’t go out on a limb and say this pronunciation is likely to become the standard, as it has in German. But we’ve observed a couple of interesting things about it.

First, for a lazy tongue it’s easier to say SHT than ST. That’s no doubt why people who’ve had a bit too much to drink tend to slur words like “street” as SHTREET and “spell” as SHPELL and “history” as HISH-try.

Second, one is apt to slur these words when speaking through clenched teeth, tough-guy style, as in gangster movies of the ’30s.

Did those Saxons of long ago speak with teeth clenched or jaws tensed, and is this how the pronunciation crept into German? Like you, no doubt, we’d love to know the answer!

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