Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Michelle Obama's str-/ʃtr-

The ads-l has had a nice thread today about Michelle Obama's (really good, IMHO) speech last night, with reference to her retroflexion of /s/ in str- clusters, so that words like strong, street, string start with more or less a [ʃ] or 'sh' rather than an 's' sound.

This piece of American English usage has been the topic of some very nice sociolinguistic work (David Durian's research on the Columbus area was noted over at ADS, but there's other stuff too). Last night, I noticed this feature immediately but what really struck (shtruck?) me was that she was doing it every time, in word-initial and word-medial position. I haven't gone back and tracked the whole speech, but I'm used to this as a highly variable pattern, while it seemed consistent for her.

This also seems to be one of those innovative features that isn't being condemned, at least not that I've heard.

Maybe it's just one more way that she's progressive!


Brains said...

I heart her.

Mr. Verb said...

Yeah, hardly the first time I've heard that reaction today. I'm amazed at the mismatch between the press I've read and how it looked to me.

Ben said...

I grew up on the south side of Chicago in the next neighborhood over from the one Michelle Obama grew up in, and I don't find this feature shtriking at all; to me it has two associations: (1) It is African American, (though not necessarily AAVE) and (2) it marks elevated speech, hence my caveat in (1).

I think there hasn't been enough attention paid to features of African American features that aren't AAVE, since many, if not most, African Americans sound distinctly African American even when speaking Standard English.

Mr. Verb said...

Thanks, Ben. So, even the consistency of the shtr- sound normal to you? I certainly hear it in Wisconsin, including from African-Americans, but think of it as a variable not a categorical feature.

And you are absolutely right that there's been too little attention to date to what I think John Baugh calls (or used to call) "African-American Standard English".