English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

As far as I know, those are the only two. They should be pronounced Soogher and Soor, shouldn't they? I looked them up on Dictionary.com, and their etymologies reveal no trace of an SH, except where the listing for sugar had:

Middle English sugre, sucre (noun) < Middle French sucre < Medieval Latin succārum < Italian zucchero < Arabic sukkar; obscurely akin to Persian shakar, Greek sákcharon

I see an obscure kinship to shakar, but the word morphed so many times since then that the SH disappeared pretty much completely. And sure is even worse, with no sign of SH:

Middle English sur ( e ) < Middle French sur, Old French seur < Latin sēcūrus

Why are these the only two like this?

share|improve this question
We get those later two words in English a bit more directly as shaker (small spice dispenser, typically for salt or pepper) and saccharine (overly sweet). – T.E.D. Jul 12 '11 at 12:10
Could this be palatalization or something similar? I'm pretty sure there's a posh British pronunciation of "sure" as /ʃjʊə(r)/ ("syoor") but I can't find any references. – hippietrail Nov 10 '11 at 16:40
It is quite clear that in general, over time, 'su' has come to be pronounced as '-shu', perhaps from an Arabic origin but not confirmed to my knowledge. It is an interesting observation however, showing existence of different pronunciations for different letter combinations, in English, similar to French or Spanish. – user21747 May 30 '12 at 18:14
also pressure, fissure, commissure, etc.; and sumac (in some dialects). – Mark Beadles May 30 '12 at 18:25
This reminds me of the story recounted on QI; The lecturer asserted Sugar is the only word in the english language where the 'su' is pronounced 'Sh' A student replied, Are you sure? – George Duckett Oct 8 '12 at 15:54
up vote 10 down vote accepted

This interesting page explains that sugar used to be pronounced originally with a common su sound, but (emphases mine):

(...) sometime in the Middle English period the initial letters su shifted to the pronunciation they now have.

If you relax the mouth and tongue somewhat when you are saying the older form, your pronunciation shifts to the modern one, as you’ll realise if you try out the two sounds in turn; the modern version is actually rather easier for slack-jawed English speakers to say. (...) The same change happened with other words, such as sure, and also to words in which the sound occurred in the middle, such as pressure and nation. By the time this shift in pronunciation was taking place, the spelling of the words had already become fixed (...)

share|improve this answer
Any phonetics discussion that says things like "relax the mouth and tongue" and "easier for slack-jawed English speakers" is, frankly, highly dubious. There is no scientific phonetic support for arguments like that. – nohat Jul 9 '11 at 0:21

The sound of French /u/ (a close front rounded vowel) is denoted [y]. Sugar is from French sucre [sykʀ(ə)], and sure is from French sur (e) [syːʀ].

Middle English kept that vowel originally—as [sykrə] and [syːr(ə)], respectively—but over time it was transformed into [ju] (like modern you). What was previously [sy-] thus became [sju-] (RP sue) and eventually [ʃʊ-] (as in modern sugar).

This happened in other contexts: -tion is pronounced [-sjɔ̃] in French, with a nasal vowel. This became [-sjɔn] (syon) or [-sjən] (syun), and finally [-ʃən] (shun).

share|improve this answer

The first part of 'sugar' used to be pronounced more like ''sue''. The vowel in that syllable is a high, back vowel and sometimes consonants change to be more like the vowels that are near them. It's called assimilation.

share|improve this answer

I've noticed many Scottish and Irish Gaelic words to be spelled with an s, followed by a vowel, and pronounced like sh. Think about the way Sean Connery speaks (not to mention how the Se in his name is pronounced).

Read the section on nomenclature here and click on some of the links about Anglic and Scots (Yes, I realize I'm quoting Wikipedia, but there is a source attached to this quote). Note how the s is pronounced sh:

Prior to the 15th century, the Anglic speech of the Lowlands was known as Inglis ("English"), with Gaelic being called Scottis ("Scottish"). From the late 15th century, however, it became increasingly common to refer to Scottish Gaelic as Erse ("Irish") and the Lowland vernacular as Scottis.

There is also some good information about Scottish Gaelic orthography and phonology that you might find useful if you can read IPA.

share|improve this answer
-1 Though this is an interesting answer, Celtic languages don't actually have to do with the pronunciations of the words in question. – Jon Purdy Jul 9 '11 at 2:34
Except that many patterns of sound change are common across all languages. – hippietrail Nov 10 '11 at 16:43

protected by tchrist Jul 1 '14 at 0:59

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.