Hissing S

Published 3rd November 2011
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SHissing S

What does the letter S bring to your mind…hissing snakes? Slippery slopes? Sticky shoes? S is the primary sibilant in the English language (a sibilant is a hissing or hushing sound or it can be a symbol representing the same) and has at least four sounds.


Say ‘season’ to yourself – two of the major sounds that S produces occur in that word; in the first, you’ll notice that the vocal chords are not engaged, whilst in the second they are. In other examples it can represent the sound ‘sh’, for instance, ‘sure’ and ‘mansion’. It can sound like the French J: ‘fusion’ and ‘closure’. Or it can even be silent, as in ‘island’.

Non-native English speakers can struggle with the pronunciation of sibilants. Spanish or Italian speakers for instance have trouble pronouncing the S at the start of English words and this leads them to add an initial vowel which acts as a buffer: ‘eh-song’, ‘eh-slice’. Children up to the age of three or four struggle with the ‘sh’ sound and substitute it for ‘s’, saying ‘sooz’ for ‘shoes’ and ‘sy’ for ‘shy’ until they grow into the correct speech.

This letter can invite philosophical or spiritual interpretation. There is a murky side to it however with its connotations with sin, Satan and the infamous SS, Hitler’s private army. But on a slightly more positive note, the Roman S is very nearly an infinity symbol, implying timeless continuity. It could be a link in a chain, or (perhaps more obviously) a snake or serpent.

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