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Sometimes I hear native speakers pronounce the s at the beginning of a word as [ʃ]. For example, straight as [ʃtreɪt], or struggle as [ʃtrʌɡl]. It sounds like German words.

Is it a certain English dialect, a specific accent, or just an idiolect?

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In my experience, many Hiberno-English speakers use that to soften the intensity of a statement and introduce some humour into it. Examples: big shtyle; the hill is fair shteep!". I haven't heard it outside Ireland. –  Jubobs Apr 20 '13 at 10:56
@Jubobs what made me ask this question is to hear it from Britons and Americans from time to time. Not regularly, but not rarely too. Of course, I was not on the position to exactly identify the origin of the speaker, but they were native. Maybe that many that you referred to is spreading a kind of fashion?!? –  All Apr 20 '13 at 11:14
Also, the s in student is pronounced like sh by most English people (shchoodent, /ʃtʃʉːdənʔ/). –  David Apr 20 '13 at 11:40
I've lived all my life in England and I can't recall anyone English saying "Shchoodent" (unless drunk). "S-choodent" , sometimes (with t turning into a ch but the S pronounced separately), "ss-tyoo-dent" sometimes - eg: youtube.com/watch?v=gV-kY9JuqDE . "Choozday" is probably more frequent than "T-yoozday" - in both cases, it's the plosive that has been affected, not the sibilant. –  Mark Bannister Apr 20 '13 at 12:25
Does pronouncing s as [ʃ] in the middle of words fall within the scope of your question? I've just remembered this instance by an American; note that he pronounces administration as adminishtration... –  Jubobs Apr 20 '13 at 12:52

2 Answers 2

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Palatal vowels (i), semivowels (y), and liquids (r) often influence the sound of preceding consonants, a process called palatalization. This is most obvious with dental consonants like t and s, which typically become tch and sh. For example, train often sounds like tchrain.

Palatalization is consistent for some English forms, like the shun sound of the -tion suffix. It is weaker or inconsistent for others, like the tr- and str- consonant clusters. Native speakers generally don't notice the variation unless you exaggerate it – train and tchrain are allophones. However, the subtle palatalization of straight could easily sound like shchrait to a non-native speaker.

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You're absolutely right, there is a subtle sh sound. I've just tried it myself and I can detect different positions of my mouth and tongue as I say str words, compared to words beginning simply with s (excluding sugar and sure of course) and other s and consonant clusters. I have no knowledge as to whether this is more marked in different regions, but I guess that as a non-native speaker you have tuned into this subtle variation whereas a native speaker would hardly notice any difference. The r sound is more of a vowel sound than a consonant in English and my mouth seems to anticipate this as it says the str.

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+1: Here is a blog posting discussing the way words beginning with "tr" turn into "chr", so "train" becomes "chrain". I think a large number of English speakers do this to some degree. It isn't surprising that "straight" might become "shchraight" (which would sound like "shtraight"). –  Peter Shor Apr 20 '13 at 11:49
+1 for pointing this out – I do this subtly and didn't even realize it. @PeterShor: Funny coincidence that I chose chrain as an example for my explanation of palatalization. –  Bradd Szonye Apr 20 '13 at 12:13
It's also worth noting that American /r/ in /tr/ is rounded as well as palatalized, like many speakers' /ʃ/. That increases the resemblance. –  John Lawler Apr 20 '13 at 17:12

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