I'm recently listening this replacement a lot on youtube, it's as if the practice is on the rising. Is it? what conditions such occurrence? Where in the US is it happening? And how did it all begin?


3 Answers 3


This retraction happens when [s] is in a consonant cluster with a following [ɹ] (as in the video you linked, "just straight up"). The reason is articulatory: the retroflex gesture of the [ɹ] is anticipated, so the [s] becomes retroflex/postalveolar too. It's an assimilation. This is pretty common in US English: I associate it with Southern and African-American speakers.

  • @sumelic I don't recall hearing that, but you may well be right. I wonder what the reason would be there. Of course the same happened in German (spät etc.)
    – TKR
    Commented Jan 2, 2019 at 21:09
  • @sumelic That applies to German but are you sure that it happens in English? This sound change in /stɹ/ > /ʃtɹ/ is something that I have noticed but never before in English. Commented Jan 2, 2019 at 22:01
  • TKR, In German /s/ became /ʃ/ before every consonant in the onset, I think. But, before that German had two s sounds that differed in multiple respects. The usual s spelled as ⟨s⟩ actually was retracted but (when voiceless) later merged with the ß sound that was spelled ⟨z⟩. I'd propose the explanation that it wasn't a retraction before consonants but that s stayed mostly unchanged before consonants and was advanced elsewhere. Commented Jan 2, 2019 at 22:02

Without specific examples, it's hard to say what exactly you're hearing.

Different languages (or accents) have different boundaries for what exactly counts as /s/ vs. /ʃ/, so it's possible that the speakers you are hearing do not really "replace" their /s/ with [ʃ], but just use a pronunciation that sounds more like [ʃ] to you.

But it's also possible that they really are using [ʃ] (possibly even /ʃ/) where a typical reference English accent would have /s/. It is known that English /s/ can have retracted pronunciations; I haven't personally read a lot of the literature about this topic, but there seems to be a decent amount (maybe some of the references here would be helpful?: Variability in American English s-retraction suggests a solution to the actuation problem).

Sometimes this happens in environments where the contrast is neutralized by English phonotactics; the most well-known examples I think are the word-initial consonant clusters /str/ (as TKR says) and /stj/ or /stʃ/ (the cluster at the start of "student" in a typical southern British English accent).

Glain (2013) says that /st/ followed by a vowel, as in stop and start, also has a variant pronunciation that sounds like [ʃt]. I don't know that much about this, but this indicates that s-retraction is not restricted to the context of str-, although it may have started out there and subsequently spread to certain other s-initial clusters. I haven't heard of s-retraction occurring outside of consonant clusters.

German Phonetics and Phonology: Theory and Practice (By Mary Grantham O'Brien and Sarah M. B. Fagan, 2016), says

[s-retraction] has in fact been documented in the English of speakers from the United States, Great Britain, and New Zealand (Rutter 2011:27). It appears to be spreading, not only by being characteristic of the speech of more and more speakers, but also in the environments where it occurs. Janda and Joseph (2003:212) have documented the [ʃ] pronunciation of /s/ in a number of environments other than the sequence /str/:

(6) [ʃ] in English clusters other than /str/:

a. with r preceding: under[ʃ]tand, thunder[ʃ]storm
b. before [r] alone: di[ʃ]respect
c. before a plosive other than /t/, with /r/ following it: [ʃ]prinkler, [ʃ]creen
d. before a plosive, with no /r/ involved: [ʃ]till, [ʃ]chool

(p. 431)


Are you observing it in the south/ in Texas for example? I would assume that you are actually noticing a retracted [s̠] that I usually notice in a Texas accent, Dutch, European Spanish, Icelandic... It's actually an old s sound presumably the kind of s that many medieval European languages had.

  • Idk where the youtubers are from, but I heard this s-sound from a Maine girl and from Stacy of the series Phineas and Ferb, with the latter not depicting Texas I think. It may not give you certainty but I found the video of a youtuber who makes this s. Check out at 1:19-1:21. youtu.be/OzvJVwowTLo Commented Jan 2, 2019 at 13:24
  • 1
    @DuarteAlfonsoMartin To me his /s/ at 1:19 sounds very different from a [ʃ]. Commented Jan 2, 2019 at 13:56
  • @DuarteAlfonsoMartin Maybe I'm just more used to it by now. terrori[s̠]ti[s̠] mi[s̠]drijf youtube.com/watch?v=mjwLRanrK9s&feature=youtu.be&t=37 Commented Jan 2, 2019 at 14:07
  • Well, I actually didn't even notice the /str/ cluster because I was not expecting a combinatory sound change. I thought you meant /s/ before vowels. Commented Jan 2, 2019 at 22:09

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