Michelle Obama’s “Shtreet” for “Street”

By Pam Marshalla

Source: AP

Q: I have a 21-year-old client with above average intelligence who says “shtreet” for “street.” He also says “undershtanding” for “understanding” and “shtretch” for “stretch.” He seems to do this on purpose. Any comments?

It has been my observation that a certain segment of the population––especially those under 25 years of age––uses an “Sh” for “S” substitution in “Str” clusters. The result is “shtreet” and the other examples you have given above. Even Mrs. Obama does this.

In the 1970’s, this substitution was heard primarily in “Southern Dialect” and it was standard in what was called “Black Dialect.” Now this pattern seems to be generalizing to the broader population. With the president’s wife using it, it would seem appropriate now to call it part of Standard North American English.

In addition I hear “Chr” for “Tr” as in “Chrain” for “Train.”  I also hear “Jr” for “Dr” as in “Jrum” for “Drum.” These errors, or changes, have the same dialectal history as above.

As is well known, speech and language patterns change over time. I think this is an example of that.

14 thoughts on “Michelle Obama’s “Shtreet” for “Street””

  1. Ha – that substitution is how drunks are portrayed in comedic media – is this something we should just ignore?!? I hope not! Dialect or not, it sounds “mushy” and unprofessional.

  2. Thank you for acknowledging this speech difference. I am of the younger generation, and I also find that it is more common in NY, where I am from. I mentioned it to my supervisor one day because I felt that I shouldn’t count “chree” as an error for “tree” on the GFTA-2. He looked at me like I was nuts!

  3. I agree that these substitutions sound non-standard and unprofessional. I cringe every time I hear someone do it, and I especially cringe when I hear the president’s wife modeling this for all to hear and emulate.

    However, I also accept the basic notion that languages change over time. There are many examples of this today. In addition to the above I also hear widespread use of the retroflex L and the interdental L. I also hear widespread use of “ain’t” for “isn’t”, massive misuse of the reflexive pronoun “myself” (as in “She gave it to myself”), and a disappearing -ly adverb (as in “I walked slow” instead of “I walked slowly.”). People say “supposebly” for “supposedly” everywhere. I agree all of this is non-standard. But SLP’s everywhere have to adjust their clinical work to their circumstances. An SLP who works in a NYC public school would have to treat nearly every single child in the school for one or more of these errors––and that would be impossible.

    1. Just because it is impossible to treat everyone doesn’t mean teachers, etc., shouldn’t teach the correct pronunciation.
      And Mrs. Obama knows better, so she obviously does it on purpose. What’s the point I wonder?

  4. This denigration of speech has driven me crazy for years! As soon as someone says shtreet, I judge them as unworthy of my time. This includes Michelle Obama. She’s an embarrassment!

    1. I agree wholeheartedly! She needs to seek speech therapy. Let us not accept poor articulation or bad habits as a change in language.

  5. I am enjoying Mrs. Obama’s book “Becoming” and have found her writing and narration of it to be among the best. However I have wondered if anyone else had noticed her use of “sh” for “s” and have found my answer here.

    1. I too have noticed this characteristic while listening to her book, Becoming. I’m astonished at the harsh criticism people express toward her because of this speech characteristic. Speech is always fluid, and any well-traveled, educated person knows different cultures, ethnicities, and geographic locations result in speech variations. How sad some see these differences as inferior, “unprofessional”, “mushy”, and “an embarrassment”. Such reactions are cringeworthy. Step out of your enclaves sometimes, folks.

  6. Silent “t”. As in mi-ins. Bu-ins. Impor-int. More and more hearing it from news anchors. Especially younger ones

    1. Yes!!! The tv commercial for an online bidding site drives me crazy. “I got this mou-in bike for five dollars” or whatever. We have a local newscaster that talks like this with silent t. Really cute….. not.

  7. Serena Williams uses the sh/s substitution as well. As a former speech pathologist and retired ESL instructor, and having a degree in linguistics, of course professionals must acknowledge regional differences in pronunciation. However, it’s also acceptable to label certain pronunciations as non-standard and train kids and English language learners to use use standard forms, as a black teacher once informed me, so they can communicate effectively in their business and academic lives. That’s not racist but practical. English language learner co-workers and clients already struggle to keep up in fast moving conversations in the workplace. Using standard pronunciations in more formal situations is a courtesy to facilitate communication. Yes, I cringe when I hear sh/s substitutions and leaving out medial t and d. My judgmental grammar snob comes out and I have a hard time reframing from labeling it lazy speech, as the black teacher colleague did. Linguists are supposed to acknowledge all forms, not pass judgement. So I’ve learned to compromise- standard forms in business/academic settings, regionalisms elsewhere to facilitate effective communication.

  8. This is just a recent ugly trend. No need to try to figure it out.Commercials, newscasters, politicians…and especially rappers.
    And who could forget Shtruggle

  9. Honestly, with the younger generation they like to emulate all the african-american english pronunciations. Also using “sh” allows one to pout their lips, and works better with the “teeth talking” news anchors who make it a point to show their teeth as much as possible while speaking–which makes for sometimes odd speech patterns.

    When I hear people speak this way with the “sh’s” and dropped “t’s” I feel like I am listening to toddler speak. Don’t even get me started with the “f’s” for “th’s”.

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