The pronunciation for "spiel" allows for either "speel" or "shpeel". The "shpeel" pronunciation is significantly more common where I live (American Midwest) and I'm curious why "spiel" didn't get the same "sh" or "sch" spelling that many other words with a Yiddish influence did:

  • schlep
  • schlock
  • schmooze
  • shtick

There are many other examples but I don't see any other examples of the "sh" sound turning into just an "s".

  • Also, though there may be very regular rules for spelling/transliteration, there is always the possibility of an idiosyncratic misspelling or deliberate addition inadvertently enshrined as rule.
    – Mitch
    Nov 14, 2016 at 21:51
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    I’m voting to close this question because This seems to be a Yiddish (or German) etymology question, unrelated to English.
    – Greybeard
    Feb 13, 2021 at 15:37

4 Answers 4


As others have mentioned, spiel may actually be derived from German Spiel rather than, or in addition to, Yiddish shpil.

In German, syllable-initial /ʃ/ (the "sh" sound) is written with the trigraph <sch> before <r>, <l>, <m> and <n> (i.e. letters that represent resonants), but with the single letter <s> before the letters <t> and <p> (i.e. letters that represent plosives). I think this explains why we don't see /ʃ/ represented by <s> in words such as schlep, schlock, schmooze. German words spelled with <st> and <sp> are generally anglicized in English pronunciation to have /st/ and /sp/ (e.g. see this question about Einstein).

Yiddish romanization is considerably less standardized than German orthography, but in general, /ʃ/ is represented by <sh> in all contexts, including syllable-initial <sht> <shp>. There are some variant spellings used in English that have <scht>, such as "schtick" (a variant spelling of shtick); I didn't find any commonly used word spelled with <schp>, but people certainly might use that for non-standardized transcriptions of Yiddish words.

  • 3
    Also, while high German indeed uses the /ʃp/ pronunciation for Spiel, there are dialects that pronounce it with /sp/ instead, e.g. an older version of the Hamburger Dialekt. Nov 15, 2016 at 6:00

Spiel derives from German spielen not from American Yiddish like the other terms you mention (boldface mine):

  • "glib speech, pitch," 1896, probably from verb (1894) meaning "to speak in a glib manner," earlier "to play circus music" (1870, in a German-American context), from German spielen "to play," from Old High German spilon (cognate with Old English spilian "to play"). The noun also perhaps from German Spiel "play, game."

Source: Etymonline

Wiktionary hints at a possible relation with the Yiddish term shpil from which probably the alternative pronunciation originates:

  • From the German Spiel ‎(“game, performance”), perhaps via Yiddish שפּיל ‎(shpil). Cognate with Old English spilian ‎(“to revel, play”).
  • 14
    Of course, German spiel is pronounced [ʃpiːl] with a ‘sh’ sound, so it would have made just as much sense to write it like the Yiddish words… Nov 14, 2016 at 20:03
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    Speel or shpeel? balashon.com/2015/02/speel-or-shpeel.html
    – user66974
    Nov 15, 2016 at 8:46
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    @JanusBahsJacquet: some dialects in the northern parts of Germany will indeed say "Spiel" instead of "Shpiel".
    – AnoE
    Nov 15, 2016 at 9:30
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    @AnoE Yes, quite a few Low German dialects were unaffected by the preconsonantal retraction of /s/ found elsewhere. Low German generally hasn't had much influence on German loan words in English, though I suppose it's possible that in this particular case, the existence of an alternative pronunciation with /s/ could be the exception to that (if it isn't just a reading pronunciation, that is). Nov 15, 2016 at 9:38
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    @JanusBahsJacquet It would not have made "just as much sense", since words that are already written in the Latin alphabet are rarely modified when they are imported into English.
    – JLRishe
    Nov 15, 2016 at 9:45

JOSH's answer resolves the central question posed by MrHen. With regard to similar words adopted from German into English without inclusion of an h in the anglicized spelling, perhaps the closest match to spiel is spritz. Here is the entry for that word in Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003):

spritz \'sprits, 'shprits\ vb {G fr. spritzen} (1902) : spray ~ vi : to disperse or apply a spray

According to Leo Rosten, The Joys of Yinglish (1989) there is a Yiddish-English form of spritz, and he spells it with an h (shpritz):

shpritz (verb and noun) shpritzer (noun) Yinglish. From German/Yiddish: spritzen: "to sprinkle," "to spray," "to squirt."

Rosten doesn't list a Yiddish/English equivalent form of spiel. However, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, fifth edition (2011) cites the Yiddish shpil (derived from Middle High German spil) as a possible direct source of spiel in English:

spiel (spēl, shpēl) Informal n. A lengthy or extravagant speech or argument usually intended to persuade. intr. & tr.v. spieled, spieling, spiels To talk or say something at length or extravagantly. {German, play, or Yiddish, shpil, both [from] Middle High German spil [from] Old High German.}

The Eleventh Collegiate dates spiel in English to 1870 and gives only one pronunciation for it: \'spēl\ . This surprises me because I have heard \'shpēl\ frequently enough to think of it as a common alternative pronunciation. Likewise the Eleventh Collegiate says that the second syllable of the curling term bonspiel is pronounced \'spēl\ (not \'shpēl\ )—although it certainly was pronounced with a sh sound in Calgary, Alberta, in the early 1970s, when I lived there. In any case, Merriam-Webster thinks that bonspiel, may be derived from Dutch bond (league) + spel (game); this word's first known occurrence in English is ca. 1770, so it has been in the language much longer than the standalone German-derived spiel.

  • Actually, spritzen is used in conjunction with liquids whereas sprühen means dispersing a spray. Nov 15, 2016 at 5:28
  • Certainly I've only heard 'Bonspiel' pronounced 'speel' here in Scotland, where it is included in the Scottish national Dictionary with 'bonspeel' as a variant spelling. A variant pronunciation on the 'ie' is also given, but I'm not fluent in such symbols.dsl.ac.uk/entry/snd/bonspiel dsl.ac.uk/entry/snd/spiel
    – Spagirl
    Nov 15, 2016 at 16:34
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    @Spagirl: that variant would be pronounced "bonspell".
    – herisson
    Nov 15, 2016 at 20:07

Any discussion of English spiel should disregard Yiddish, which is irrelevant to its etymology. The word comes solely from German.

For details, see pages 563-570 of David L. Gold's Studies in Etymology and Etiology (With Emphasis on Germanic, Jewish, Romance, and Slavic Languages).

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