How our language changes: consonental drift

I think I have heard hishtory in the making. That’s right; not history. Hishtory with a ‘sht’.

I hear it everywhere I go in New Zealand. Some people say it, some don’t. There’s no rhyme or reason. It’s just a consonental drift.

I began to hear it in London in the noughties. When I came back home to New Zealand in 2003, this idiosyncrasy of speech was lying in wait for me. Where did it begin? How did we get ‘conshtruc-shun infrashtruk-chuh’? How did construction infrastructure get so mangled?

Where does language change come from?

Wherever it began and wherever it went, we can safely assume that that ‘sht’ travelled via the media, probably TV. So did ‘arks’. I mean, ‘I arksed ‘im for the keys to the van’ — very East London.

But how about ‘har’? As in ‘Har I poured the concrete slab was I hired a mixer and Dave came round to give me a hand.’

‘Har’ definitely gives a statement a down-to-earth Kiwi twang. But is ‘har’ local, or do you find it elsewhere?

Then there’s the double ‘is’. As in, ‘The reality of it is, is that biscuits taste better when they’re dunked.’ Humph. You only need one ‘is’, whether you dunk or not. (I do. It’s my guilty secret.)

Try this experiment at home

Finally, here’s a little linguistic experiment. You need a teddy bear, a bottle of beer, and test subjects of a range of ages. Ideally, include a couple of under-10s. Show them the beer and ask ‘What’s this?’ Repeat with the bear. My observations from this highly scientific poll is that the younger the test subject, the more likely they’ll pronounce the cuddly toy exactly the same way as the amber liquid. If they’ve been asking for their beer, they don’t have an early-onset drinking problem. Just give their teddy back.

Tell us your pet peeves

As plain language experts, one of the benchmarks we set for clear communication is that it uses familiar words. But we know those words change. ‘Hishtory’ sounds like an inelegant newcomer. But we may all be saying it 10 years time.

Whether we are or not, I’ll have new words to grumble about by then. Meanwhile, what are your pet peeves? We’d love to know.


7 responses to “How our language changes: consonental drift”

  1. Nicola Welby says:

    Pronunciation is one of my pet peeves too! I’m South African, and my Kiwi husband can’t understand what I’m on about! To him, ‘beer’ and ‘bear’ are pronounced the same. As are ‘ear’ and ‘air’; and ‘here’, ‘hear’ and ‘hair’. I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one that’s pulling out my hair over this!
    Great post, Inez!

  2. Corinna Lines says:

    John Key is an expert! Especially saying “Shtraya” for our neighbour.

    After the Christchurch earthquakes, when people were offering accommodation and facilities for displaced people, all I could hear was “People can come and use ayur sharz” (“our showers”).

  3. Paul Veltman says:

    It is most likely the ‘r’ sound in the ‘str’ combination causing this sound change in words like history, construction, and infrastructure, stripe, etc.

    The process is called palatalization by some, and affrication by others, depending on whether they are looking at the ‘place of articulation’, or the ‘manner of articulation’.

    Either way, it causes the ‘s’ to be pronounced as ‘sh’ in this context, much as English speakers have learnt to pronounce ‘Sri Lanka’.

    The same process affects the ‘t’ in words like tree – compare “The shree in the Garden of Eden was an apple shree”, with markedly unnatural “The tree in the garden of Eden was an apple tree.”

    The sentence ‘I dreamed about an apple tree in Sri Lanka’ shows how similar ‘tree’ and ‘Sri’ are, and shows that ‘dream’ is also affected (‘jreem’).

    But, ‘s’ is an unusual letter in that it’s the only consonant that can appear before ‘tr’ at the start of a syllable, and so it is especially sensitive to its environment, and given that ‘tr’ and ‘dr’ are so variable, it’s no surprise to find such an interesting piece of language variation.

    It would be interesting to know how people pronounce words such as split, sclera, spring, street, scream, square, smew, spew, student, skewer, and more obscure, but still recognizable ones such as sphragistics.

    • Inez Romanos says:

      I’ve had fun thinking about list in your last paragraph.

      I think I’ve heard shplit, shpring, shtreet, shcream, and shtudent. I’ve never heard anyone say smew or sphragistics. Now excuse me while I check my online Oxford Dictionary…

      …and thank you an intereshting discussion!

  4. I have been noticing lots of young people (preschoolers and primary schoolers) saying the ‘ur’ vowel (‘nurse’) as ‘ar’. To me, their ‘nurse’ sounds like ‘narse’. ‘It doesn’t warrk (work) when I tarrn (turn) the handle.’

  5. Jane says:

    I have also noticed Kathryn Ryan on RNZ National talking about a political ‘isss-you’ rather than ‘ish-you’. Is this a foretaste of what is to come?

    • Inez Romanos says:

      I think that one’s been around for a long time. I associate it with the ‘received pronunciation’ (posh voices) used on the BBC and in other media way back in the 30’s and 40’s. Does that ring a bell? And is Kathryn harking back to an earlier time?

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