Hearing That Pesky ‘S’

Gael Hannan
February 17, 2014

Heard any good s’s lately?

A person with hearing loss goes into a bar and asks, “What’s on tap?”
The bartender replies, “I’ll tell ya.”
They look at each other for a long moment, and finally the patron prompts, ‘So?”
The bartender raises his eyebrows and replies, “So…what?”
“So, don’t just say I’ll tell ya – and then don’t. So, what’s on TAP?”
The bartender leans in and hisses, “I told you already, pal – SSStella!”
 “Red wine, please.”

OK, it’s not a thigh-slapper, but if you have hearing loss and even if you don’t drink Stella Artois, you’ll get it. People like us have difficulty hearing the sibilant, high-frequency sounds of s, sh, ch and j.

Frequency is measured in hertz (Hz) and speech includes a mix of low- and high-frequency sounds. The low-frequency vowels (250 to 1,000 Hz) use voice and are easier to hear. They also give power to words. Consonants (s/h/f/ etc.) frame the vowels and give meaning to words. But as they are articulated without voice, their higher frequencies (1,500 to 6,000 Hz) make them much harder to hear for most people with hearing loss, even if we are hearing aid or CI users.

But although I can’t always hear an expressed s, I know it’s there thanks to a lifetime of using context to fill in the blanks of what I may not actually hear. Dictionaries have complicated definitions for context, but I call it ‘knowing what we’re talking about’. I’ve also learned to to take clues from the amount of energy and time that a speaker uses to deliver a word, phrase or sentence.

Let’s say we’re at dinner and the Hearing Husband asks me to pass the salt. Although I might not hear all those pesky s’s, it’s immediately clear to me that he wants the salt. Perhaps it’s because I’m holding it, or partly because he may always put salt on his fries. What I hear is not just the sentence minus the sibilants, i.e. pah-the-alt. Even if the actual sibilance doesn’t register, my brain translates (more or less correctly) the complete utterance or thought. Speech has rhythm, and we learn the rhythms of those we know well. It also takes just a slight bit longer to say pass the salt, than it does to say pah-the-alt.  So I have several clues to help  me decide what he has said. Now, if my husband actually did say pah-the-alt, it wouldn’t make sense and I’d have to say pardon. Conversely, if a stranger with unfamiliar speech patterns said pass the salt, however beautifully articulated, or if I was in a noisy place, I might not understand.

There’s also a trick to understanding pluralization. If I ask a stranger if they have any pets, her choice of words is important. If she has a single cat, the usual response is ‘a cat’ or ‘I have a cat’. If she has more than one, she would say ‘cats’ or ‘I have cats’. Because she didn’t use the preposition ‘a’, I know she has at least two felines.  While the s sound is often difficult for me, I’ve never asked my family and friends to stop using plurals and other s-words. Can you imagine, trying to rephrase in order to avoid the s?!

Gael, did you feed the cat and her brother?
How much of the loaf of bread would you like grilled in the machine?
I have one dollar and nine more in my wallet.


How to Make an S: The tongue, wide and thin, touches the roof of the mouth at sides. The tongue tip is raised with a very narrow groove in the center through which air passes out of the mouth. ‘S’ does not use the voice.

How to Speechread an S: This is tough, because it doesn’t look like much of anything. It’s not highly visible like p/b/m/v/f. The teeth are closer together than for any other sound and the lips are drawn back slightly. Not like a werewolf, just slightly.  I wish you luck.


When there is no context to provide clues, we do the best we can and some words are easier than others. If someone says – out of the blue, for no reason at all – the word baseball, I usually get it. Firstly, this is a standard word used in hearing tests since humans started walking upright. Secondly, there’s no other word that sounds quite like baseball, although fishball is kind of close, as are mess hall and Saint Paul. Thirdly, if the speaker and I are face to face, the b’s make the word easy to speechread.

Applying the s to its correct spot can be tricky. I once dated a guy named Sandy – until about the third date, when I discovered I was actually dating a guy named Andy. When he introduced himself, he must have said “It’s Andy” or “My name’s Andy”, and I attached the s to the wrong word. But I knew it was there somewhere, because he would not have said “It Andy” or “My name Andy”. Anyway, I dumped Andy, because I liked Sandy better.

As hearing technology has improved, so has my speech – simply because I hear myself better. I’ve worked hard to be a better s-maker, although it’s still not my best-articulated sound. So when we were deciding what to call the boy-baby we were expecting, I was reluctant to pick a name with sibilants. Otherwise, the poor kid might grow up thinking his name was Tham or Thebaschun or (God help him) Shilvethter.  I did briefly consider one name that was sibilant-free and easy to speechread, but I knew my son would never forgive me if he had to go through life introducing himself as Bam-Bam Hannan.

  1. Excellent article on why we have difficulty hearing consonants. When I cannot understand an unfamiliar name of a person or street over the phone I ask the person to spell the word using a common word or name for each letter. For example Mary for “m” or Nancy for “n”. Hearing people have always cooperated because raising their voice over the phone only makes it more difficult to understand the word.

  2. “Red wine please.” Made me laugh – Thanks.
    This past Friday- Valentine evening dinner with friends at an up-scale restaurant- in response to the server’s polite “drink before dinner” inquiry, I requested a lager. The server offered a loving description of some special brew – all I understood was that it was on tap but -with the rest of the table watching and waiting, rather than ask for a drink menu, or for the server to
    repeat- knowing how THAT could work out, I took the easy route; smiled, nodded, and said, “sounds good.”
    The lager was diet light (yuck) but came in an attractive tall glass with “Canoe” embossed on the side. Sigh.

  3. Excellent post! My son has high-frequency loss, I will definitely be sharing this with the hearing people in his life!

  4. When adjusting hearing instruments if improvement is needed in the sibulant sounds adjusting 2 to 3k will help.

  5. Fantastic writing! As a practicing speech language pathology graduate student and one who has been treating for over 6 years, it is my position to pay close attention to speech intelligibility. Not only do people have a difficult time hearing those high frequency sounds (f, sh, s, th sounds), they also may not make those same sounds with the same precision that they once did strictly because they don’t hear themselves as well as they used to. For those clients who have difficulty with those sound, we speech language pathologists often use a visual cue to assist. For the “pesky s”, one could use a number of different handmade visual markers. You can be creative and come up with your own! I tend to use the ‘tracing s’ off my lips in a forward motion with my index finger. Others may choose another way. What ever the case may be, unfamiliar people will not understand what you are doing, however, it may beneficial to use something like this with those who are close to you, as it offers a simple and easy alternative. Simply discuss, demonstrate, and practice the visual cue with your significant other and use it when the time is needed, for instance, when you are out having dinner and you need the s-(hand motion)-alt. Just a suggestion. Thank you kindly for yours:)

  6. It gets really tough when your name is Sallie- people call me lots of other names because I cant say it correctly anymore. I guess Allie is an OK substitute!

Leave a Reply