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February 13, 2019

Got the World on a Shtring - S-retraction

Been a while since I've done a quick little article like this! This one is inspired by an interesting trends I'd noticed in speech. I've had it pointed out to me that 1970s disco singer Andy Gibb pronounces the word "string" as "shtring". Gibb was born in England and lived in both Australia and England as a child.

"Open up that heaven in your heart and let me be the things you are to me, and not some puppet on a shtring." - I Just Want to be Your Everything, Flowing Rivers (1977)

I noticed it again when Todd Motto, a front-end web developer from England, used this pronunciation frequently in his Angular material. He also uses it on the word "string":

"...This creates the base base element. Then we have template inside a shtring - we all love shtrings..." - Todd Motto

It's not s before any particular consonant cluster - it's a consonant cluster with /tr/. I asked the #lingtwitter community on Twitter if anyone had any familiarity with this pronunciation. Thankfully, they pulled through! This phenomenon is called s-retraction. It is called that because before the /tr/ cluster, the tongue is pulling back - retracting, which results in a "sh" sound instead. A similar thing happens in Standard German.

Although I had thought that s-retraction happened mostly in England, it was actually more widespread than I had expected. Several American responders noted it in their own speech. S-retraction does not seem to be a very notable feature for most people; unlike other stigmatized or notable linguistic features like ai-monophthongization, I have never encountered any jokes or prescriptivism regarding "shtring." Perhaps it may become more common in the future, and one day English will have a similar pattern of s-retraction as German does. I myself do not have any s-retraction in my own speech.

Update September 13, 2019: I have found an example of s-retraction but with no 'tr' - it happens with "stop" and "spit". In "The What" by the Notorious B.I.G. and Method Man, listen to the following lines by Method Man:

"shtop, look and listen, I shpit on your grave" - The What, Ready To Die (1994)

To further complicate matters, Method Man was born and raised in New York City, where our previous examples were from Australia and England. Perhaps this is an example of how innovation can happen spontaneously, but fail to be picked up more consistently - it's not common for New York City English to have s-retraction. A quick google search shows that some people regard Method Man as having a "lisp" - could it be in reference to s-retraction? In any case, it's yet another diverse data point for a group that so far, does not seem to have much in common.

If you are interested in further reading regarding s-retraction, here are some papers regarding s-retraction in English. Note that these papers are written in academic English and assume a prior familiarity with the research, so they may be challenging to read if you have never read any linguistics papers before. Thanks to @drswissmiss, @ergodos1, @ajroyerR, and @funalogist for their assistance in finding these articles!


  1. I love the idea behind this blog and your dissections have been very informative. I've begun to notice others' speech patterns lol

    For your next dissection can I recommend Beyonce? Or Playboi Carti? Both have unique regional aspects to their speech imo

    Keep up the good work!

    1. Apologies - I didn't get a 'ping' on this comment until now! Thank you so much! I've actually been working on a Beyonce article, though it will probably be a while until it's actually out.

  2. "Social and Shtructural Conshtraints" huh? :)

  3. My cousin does this very strongly in his rural West Coast accent. I think he does it to sound more "country", so it might be a bit of an affectation (I don't remember it when we were growing up), but I do think this phenomenon also appears in association with rural/country American accents. Think Heath Ledger's character in Brokeback Mtn:

    My cousin used to chew tobacco as well, and I wonder if it might also have something to do with that. Now that he has quit chewing, he may do it to mimic how he used to sound with chew in his lip.

  4. I started noticing this pronunciation a while back in younger speakers in interviews and such. I thought it was perhaps something developing mainly in urban areas. No one seemed to know what I was talking about, so it's good to know it is an actual linguistic "thing." I do remember wondering why Andy Gibb sang shtring instead of string.

  5. I first noticed this in the late 90s in southern England, not necessarily from a local. In the US, Stephen Colbert talks like that, and I think Bernie Sanders, as well as scattered less prominent people.

    The German phenomenon is quite different: it's not limited to following /r/, and it's not limited to /st/ either, but includes /sp/. Word-initially it's been universal in High German for centuries; the real question is why it's not spelled out, given that it is spelled out in front of all other consonants (schw, schn, schl, schm...). Word-medially and -finally it's limited to Alemannic and Tyrolean.

    What is similar is the change /rst/ > /rʃt/ (e.g. in Wurst, Durst) in a zone next to the one where /st sp/ > /ʃt ʃp/ is unlimited. But that, too, must be old and is not spreading; it's older than non-rhoticity.

  6. I wonder if this even has a geographic distribution in English. I just heard another American say "reconstruction" that way, and a South African say Lystrosaurus.

    1. I think it's a lot more widespread than previously thought. I have some new examples that aren't limited to following /r/ - one that really shocked me was 'shmile'! (Will have to upload later, my computer is kinda busted right now.)

      Considering how widespread it is and among different ages of speakers, it may just be an articulatory thing that happens in English.

  7. I came across this after hearing Chuck Berry's "My Ding-a-Ling" on the radio. "Silver bells on a shtring"! This must be the oldest example compared to those mentioned above.