“Shtruggling to shtraighten the shtring?” It’s called S-backing

For the past decade or so I’ve noticed (and whined about) this odd propensity for people to replace “str” sounds with “shtr” when pronouncing certain words. First I noticed radio DJs doing this. Then newscasters. Then teachers. But when Michelle Obama started talking about America’s “shtruggles,” everyone else picked it up shtraightaway.

Words like street, straight, struggle, struck, straddle, string and others suddenly found a new trend: S-retraction or S-backing (which can be a speech disorder).  Linguists say it’s a trend all over the United States, as more people communicate “str” words making the “s” sound farther back on the tongue, causing the “sh” sound to emerge. So all of these words are now sounding a lot different than they used to.

“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,” says Neal Whitman, posting in 2008 over at Grammar Girl.

These days it’s no longer shtrange.  If you want to read more about S-backing, check out this 2007 research paper on this topic (pdf) from Ohio State University.

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