Sean Connery’s /s/

Sean Connery

Photo: Alan Light

Reader Jason Reid wrote me recently with a thoughtful question about a notorious celebrity quirk of pronunciation:

Comedians often imitate Sean Connery by pronouncing /s/ like /?/ (as in she). Does Sean Connery really not make a distinction between those two sounds? I think he does. I was thinking that his pronunciation may be an apico-alveolar or even retroflex fricative as opposed to (what I think is) the more usual lamino-alveolar fricative of English. This may sound like a “sh” to people who don’t use it. What do you think? Thanks for taking the time to read this e-mail.

I agree entirely with what Jason says here. Connery’s /s/ has always struck me as unusually apical, meaning that it is pronounced with the tip of the tongue rather than the blade (i.e. top surface).  Play around with your tongue a bit while saying /s/, and you’ll notice that the tip-of-the-tongue variety indeed sounds slightly closer to English ‘sh.’ No wonder comedians have been making jokes about ‘Her Majeshty’s Shecret Shervice’ for years.

The apical /s/ is not particularly common in English, but it is typical of Iberian Castilian Spanish (the type of Spanish you would hear in Madrid), which partially results in the impression of a ‘Spanish lisp’ (although the use of /θ/ (English ‘th’) in words like cena no doubt plays a part). Incidentally, the apical/laminal /s/ distinction is important to the phonology of another Iberian language, Basque. I would hesitate to say that one influenced the other, but it’s an intriguing connection.

Laminals and apicals do in fact distinguish certain English accents, although the fact often goes unremarked upon. Not to mention that it affects other consonants more than it does /s/. In the US, the dialects of New York City and Western Pennsylvania often feature laminal /t/ and /d/ (I once identified New Yorker David Duchovny in a voiceover for a commercial primarily on the basis of his laminal /d/ in the word ‘dog.’) I’ve also heard the laminal variants in natives of London, Belfast, and Chicago. It seems to have a somewhat ‘urban’ character, although I can’t for the life of me say why.

But back to /s/. Unlike certain laminal /t/’s and /d/’s, I don’t believe Connery’s apical /s/ is part and parcel of his Scottish accent. I’ve never met anyone from Edinburgh with a similar quirk. /s/, which can vary so much in its articulation, doesn’t really factor into our perception of English accents. Yet we notice individual /s/ pronunciation very readily. Perhaps the very salience of /s/ limits the variety of /s/?

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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22 Responses to Sean Connery’s /s/

  1. Jason Reid says:

    Wow, you actually did a post on this. Awesome! I don’t have much to add to this except I’m curious if other native speakers of English here also use a laminal /s/ (like me). And I agree that /s/ is a very “salient” sound. When I hear people whispering, it’s the sound that sticks out to me the most. In fact, I remember when I was young, I used to imitate whispering by just saying a bunch of s‘s. Usually I would do this in a friend’s ear to make someone else think I was saying bad things about them.

  2. NN says:

    Wikipedia suggests that his parents were native speakers of Scottish Gaelic, where s has a dental articulation, so perhaps this goes some way towards explaining it?

  3. trawicks says:

    @Jason,

    Thanks! /s/ sticks out like a sore thumb because of its high frequency compared to other consonants. It’s probably for this reason that we tend to notice even the slightest differences in articulation. (Where with English approximant /r/, for example, we can produce perceptually near-identical sounds with strikingly different tongue formations).

    @NN,

    I considered that, although I’d have to place the notion firmly in the category of wild speculation. A dentalized /s/ would produce a rather different effect, something similar to the /s/ people employ when doing crude imitations of women or effeminate men. So Connery’s /s/, if it were related to the dentalized sibilant of Gaelic, would perhaps be the product of some kind of hypercorrection?

  4. Mazzoir says:

    I find doing that Shushy – S improves any impression of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. Generational thing? False teeth?

    • Tom says:

      I’ve wondered about the false-teeth angle, because it seems that Paul McCartney has begun doing the “shushy” /s/ too.

      • trawicks says:

        There may be some truth to that. I don’t have much experience with false teeth, but friends who’ve had lingual braces (i.e. braces that are attached behind the teeth, rather than the front) developed an apical /s/ similar to Connery’s. Depending on the structure of dentures, something similar might be going on there.

  5. lynneguist says:

    That /s/ is definitely Scottish. Our former vice-chancellor was Scottish and I always struggled to keep a straight face when he referred to our ‘univershitty’. It only happens after /r/, just like in Swedish.

    • trawicks says:

      Interesting. I actually haven’t watched much of Connery’s speech lately, so I’d have to see if a disproportionate number of his ‘sh’-like /s/’s are post-rhotic.

  6. Jess says:

    I’m from Edinburgh and I’d agree that Sean Connery’s particular /s/ is idiosyncratic, although less emphatic pronunciations of the same seem to be a Scottish thing.

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  8. Jaydee says:

    I have many Scottish friends and my family is from Scotland and none of them have the lisping “s”. I never noticed it in early Sean Connery movies that lisp. I always assumed it was dental work as it wasn’t apparent in earlier of his works.

  9. smilingjoe says:

    lishen to hish commentsh on the Andy Murray shucshesh …. http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/tennis/19556326

    Sir Alex Ferguson sounds much more sober … the sh of Connery is something never corrected yet has never been an obshtacle in hish career. And who would tell Jamesh Bond to change the way he speaksh after all?

  10. sean emrick says:

    I think it has to do with a Gaelic Background as the S in Gaelic shifts to an Sh sound following a slender vowel (I or E). Dentures are another possibility though

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  13. captainbirdseye says:

    Oh come on, he’s first rate tosser and you know it. he’s practiced it, thinking it’s sexy. OR it’s his dentures..