LINGUIST List 10.217

Wed Feb 10 1999

Sum: English /(s)tr/ Clusters

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. shelly harrison, Summary: English /(s)tr/ clusters

Message 1: Summary: English /(s)tr/ clusters

Date: Wed, 10 Feb 1999 08:12:55 +0800
From: shelly harrison <>
Subject: Summary: English /(s)tr/ clusters

On February 4 I posted the following query to LINGUIST:

	Palatalisation in /(s)tr/ clusters

	One of the first things I noticed when I lived in Hawaii in the early
	seventies was the strong palatalisation of /(s)tr/ clusters
	e.g. street = [shchreet], tree = [chree]. I've recently observed a
	similar phenomenon in some thirty-something speakers from the
	northeast of the US, at least in the /str/ clusters. How widespread
	is this?

Since the initial flood of responses (I received nineteen in total) has now
dwindled to a trickle, the time has perhaps come to post a summary.

The replies highlighted three issues regarding the phenomenon in question:

	1. its phonetic/phonological range
	2. its phonetic nature and/or motivation
	3. its geographic and sociolinguistic distribution

Most of the responses involved /tr/ clusters in words like 'train' and
'tree'. Many of those responses referred to:
	 Read, Charles [1971] "Pre-School Children's Knowledge of English
Orthography." Harvard Educational Review 41(1)(February):1-34)
who reports (according to those respondents) spellings like: chrie (try),
cwnchre (country). Others report their own children's spellings -- chrain

Some of the respondents reported having been told in phonetics class ( or
themselves otherwise believed it to be the case) that palatalisation in
/tr/ clusters was widespread in American English. Poor Aussie, some of
them seemed to be saying, how could you not know that? I myself am a
baby-boomer born and raised in Toronto. Though I've lived in Australia
for twenty-five years, I am definitely an American dialect speaker, and I
don't say [chrain] -- forgive the contortions I'm forced into to render
phonetics. (I'll return to what I believe I do say below.)

James Myers reports a psycholinguistic experiment conducted in Buffalo, in
which the subjects were asked to respond SAME-DIFFERENT for pairs presented
to them. Response time was considerably slower for the pair truck/chuck
than for truck/tuck. Alice Faber reports a student at the University of
Florida who transcribed /tr/ clusters as [ch], and Larry Trask reports a
student London who claimed that 'train' and 'chain' are homophones in his
dialect. (A number of replies reported palatalisation of /tr/ in SE
England, so the phenomenon is not restricted to American English.)

Kimary Shahin and Rob Hagiwara stress, quite correctly I think, that the
phonetic issue in /tr/ clusters is affrication and retraction, rather than
alveopalatal articulation per se. Since /r/ involves tongue retraction
(Hagiwara notes that not all speakers of American English actually have
retroflection), it is only natural that the preceding /t/ is itself
retracted from its usual alveolar articulation. In my own speech, as best
as I am able to monitor these things, /tr/ clusters involve post-alveolar
closure and some affrication, but are nowhere near as affricated as /ch/.
(There is, of course, an affricated pronunciation of initial [tj], as in
words like 'tune' or 'tube'. It's not my normal pronunciation of such
forms, but I do have it as a variant, and it is, I think, [ch].) Full
affrication of /tr/ clusters is perhaps a reanalysis of the retracted [t]
in these clusters as instances of the phoneme /ch/ (as Rob Hagiwara
suggested to me, if I've interpreted his remarks correctly).

Identical phonetic considerations must be at work in the regressive spread
of retraction to the sibilant in /str/ clusters, though far fewer
respondents seemed to be familiar with [shchr] than with simple [chr].
(Stefan Ploch observes the absence of [sr], as opposed to [shr] clusters, a
further indication perhaps of the retracting influence of /r/ in English.)
Donn Bayard and Hal Schiffman point out that Labov has reported [shtr] as
characteristic of Philadelphia English, and believe it to be particularly
prevelant among Italian-Americans. (One of the people I've observed here
in Perth who has the feature is male, mid-thirties, Jewish, from
Philadelphia.) Keira Ballantyne (an Australian English speaker currently
resident in Hawaii) reports having heard [shtr] in informal register here
in Australia. Donn Bayard reports it in New Zealand too. I would not have
mentioned this had Keira and Donn not raised it, but I have made similar
observations for some Australian speakers. One person with whom I have
quite regular contact (female, forties, from Sydney) seems to do it almost

In a detailed reply Dan Alford reports that he has made similar sightings
of [shtr] in American English over the years, and sent a posting about it
to LINGUIST some time ago. (I thought I remembered seeing something.)
Among his television observations are:

	Straight (Bryant Gumble)
 	ekStra (Pam Moore, Bay Area newscaster)
 	reStrain (Lt. Worf, Star Trek: Next Generation)
 	Strong(er), Stripe, moonStruck (Jay Leno)
	(S = [sh]).
Martin Ball reports it increasingly in SE England.

Retraction of /s/ in clusters is not restricted to /str/, number of
respondents note. Peter Tan pointed out the emphatic [shtupid], as in:
'Don't be so SHTUPID.' That observation made me ponder the [(s)tju:]
environment (as noted above) as a retraction-conditioning one. So obvious
I hadn't thought of it, but I'm sure I do it variably: astute, Stewart,
steward ...)

A number of people (Alice Faber, Dan Alford, Hal Schiffman) report what I
take to be retraction of /s/ in clusters with no obvious retracting
environment: 'shtate department', 'reshpect'. Hal Schiffman and Jerry
Neufeld-Kaiser suggest there may be a general retraction of /s/ underway in
some parts of North America. I can't comment on that.

Just one final observation. For many years I've been puzzled about the
palatalisation/retraction of the sibilant in /sC/ clusters in Standard High
German and other German dialects, a number of Slavic languages, peninsular
and carioca Portuguese, Navarre/Asturias Spanish (for some speakers at
least, by my observation), and probably numerous other languages I've left
out. I can understand the phonetic motivation of
retraction/palatalisation/affrication in the [(s)tr] and [(s)tj]
environments I've considered here. But why in the absence of [r] or [j]?
Is it just a matter of lenition in clusters?

Thanks to those who responded to my original query:
Dan Alford, Martin Ball, Keira Ballantyne, Donn Bayard, Peter Daniels,
Alice Faber, Rob Hagiwara, Richard Laurent, Jerry Neufeld-Kaiser, Bart
Mathias, Gerald Mathias, James Myers, Stefan Ploch, Kimary Shahin, Hal
Schiffman, Peter Tan, Bob Trammell, Larry Trask, Dovie Wylie

Apologies if I've left anyone out, and deep apologies if I've
misrepresented anyone's views.

shelly harrison
centre for linguistics
university of western australia
nedlands, w.a. 6907

fax: +61-8-9380-1154
phone: +61-8-9380-2859
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