Friday, April 07, 2006

The Chicago Dialect

Since a large plurality of my hits come from people googling "chicago dialect," I feel I owe it to the Information Superhighway to write a concise, nontechnical description of the dialect of Chicago and its surrounding area for anyone who is looking for such a thing. I will start with the following preface:

Who Speaks the Chicago Dialect?

Or rather, who doesn't? The answer, of course, is African Americans in the Chicago region, who have their own (and infinitely more interesting) dialect. Though this may be obvious, I point this out because African Americans are the largest population group in Chicago, and it would be irresponsible to overlook the fact that the Chicago dialect is not used by the largest sector of the city's population.

Vowels

The most salient feature of the Chicago dialect is that it is undergoing the Northern Cities Vowel Shift. This is most noticeable in words with the /ae/ vowel, which gets "raised" so that it's close to /e/. Thus, 'bad' sounds a bit like 'bed,' or, to my ears, 'beead.' Another notable aspect of this vowel shift is that /o/ is "fronted" so that it is closer to /ah/. So hot sounds a lttle like 'hat.' As an ongoing change, it is more prevalent and more pronounced among young people, middle-class people, and females, but it is quite widespread. nearly all white Chicagoans exhibit this vowel shift, at least to some extent. A more local vowel development is a monophthongization of /ow/ to /oh/, so that 'south' becomes 'soth' and 'down' becomes 'don.' This is more conservative and less widespread.

Consonants

The stereotype about Chicagoans is that they say "dis" instead of "this," but that's not entirely accurate. The real pronunciation is somewhere in between. To approximate it, first pronounce /th/ the standard way, with the tip of your tongue between your teeth. Then, keeping your teeth apart, move the tip of your tongue to the back of your teeth. That's the typical Chicago /th/. Contrast it with /d/, which is made with the teeth closed, and the tongue against the roof of the mouth. This is a conservative trait, and is more common among older people, working class people, and males. The unvoiced equivalent, that is, the /th/ of in the word 'thick' is even more conservative.

Vocabulary

Chicago vocabulary is fairly unremarkable. As a cosmopolitan place, the vocabulary is more generalized than in rural areas, so that Chicagoans are at least familiar with words that were formerly used by dialectologists as markers of Southern dialect or "Midland" - that is, the dialect in between Northern and Southern. Nevertheless, there are a few localisms which are worth mentioning:

What other people call rubbernecking, Chicagoans call "gaping" - thus an accident on the side of the road can cause a "gapers' delay" or "gapers' block."

Also, Chicagoans are more likely to use the term "gym shoes." I remember thinking of this as a "fancy" word as a kid.

Grammar

In Chicago, like in other American cities that had lots of German-speaking immigrants, "with" can be used more frequently as a verbal complement. Thus, while most Americans might say "come with," Chicagoans can also say "take with" and "have with." Consider the following bit of dialogue from Chicagoan David Mamet's play "American Buffalo," reconstructed from my fallible memory:
Donny: (Talking about a gun) I don't want it with.
Teach: Well, I want it with.
In the 1996 film version, Donny's line sounds fine when delivered by Chicagoan Dennis Franz, but Angeleno Dustin Hoffman has trouble making Teach's line sound natural; he's clearly uncomfortable saying it.

Summary

My only qualification for writing this is that I am from Chicago; I am no expert on the subject, but some of my readers are. Check the comments for edifying additions and corrections which are sure to come.

Hear Chicagoans Online

Here are two good samples. This one is relatively mild, but it is a recording of fairly natural speech. This one is an informant reading a text, which means it isn't totally natural speech, but the informant has a beautifully extreme form of the dialect. I don't think he's exaggerating.

64 comments:

Queenie said...

maybe what you're hearing as /aw/ monophthongization is really a sort of backing that doesn't really raise? i've definitely heard this in chicago (and elsewhere, i think). it comes out a little like "salth" for "south". at any rate, it's not like the pittsburgh [a:], because there's some type of off-glide. (i used to live in pittsburgh, and did some work on this for a while. trust me, what they got going on is totally different.) i remember hearing this L-like thing in "american movie"-- filmed in wisconsin. if anybody knows how to describe this pattern or knows of any studies of it, i'd like to hear about it. is it like the epenthetic L in both? i have no idea.

Queenie said...

ok i see (not surprisingly) that i am not the first to wonder about the epenthetic L before an interdental.

http://listserv.linguistlist.org/cgi-bin/wa?A2=ind0411d&L=linguist&P=6669

but i have no explanation for "monophthongal" /aw/ in down.

just talkin' to myself here-- carry on.

Ben said...

I think you're on to something with the "epenthetic l" theory. It may not account neatly for all situations, but as a description it's certainly more fitting than "monophthongization." And I agree - from what little I've heard of Pittsburghese I can tell that "Dahntahn" Pittsburgh is miles away from "Dolntoln" Chicago. Literally!

Wow, that's the best word verification word yet: "pghglg."

Anonymous said...

one of the most important things to note is that Chicago is not pronounced Chi-KA-go, but Chi-KAW-go

Ingrid said...

I object to what anonymous said ... I definitely say "Chi-KA-go" rather than "Chi-KAW-go" (that is, alpha rather than lax o) and I think most residents do the same.

Ben said...

This is still a matter of contention. I'll let the data speak for itself: it shows that some Chicagoland people indeed say "Chicahgo", whereas others (myself among them) say "Chicawgo." At one point I was convinced this was a city/suburb split, but now I think it may be a male/female one (notice how I mistook female for suburban - this can be easily explained using sociolinguistics). I'm fairly confident in my assumption that you are female. I'm less confident, but confident nonetheless, that Anonymous is male.

Wanna hear some data? Check out this interview with frequent Positive Anymore commenter Corrine McCarthy. It's pretty interesting all around, but more to the point, compare how she says Chicago with how the host, Nick Digilio does. Also, notice how, roughly six minutes in, they each say "sausage" with contrasting vowels. Later on, in fact, they discuss this Chicahgo-Sassage/Chicawgo-Sawsage controversy.

As with any scientific endeavor, more data couldn't hurt.

Stephanie said...

Black Chicagoans do not always have a completely separate dialect from the rest of the Chicagoland population. Indeed, I am black and when I travel to other states my Chicago accent (read: exaggerated "a" and "o") becomes an unavoidable topic of discussion.

I propose that accents vary from Westside, to Southside, to Northside (though not drastically), and from suburb to suburb.

Nice blog. Interesting discussion.

Anonymous said...

Im sure im ignorant about this subject being from Cali, but when I went to Chicago a lot of people almost sounded like New Yorkers, and I have a friend from Chicago who when I first met, I thought she was from Brooklyn or Jersey. On the other hand some Chicagoans talked more like the traditioal nasally midwest accent.

Anonymous said...

I've heard in Chicago the term "fronchroom" instead of "frontroom." They're peculiar people, those Chicagoans.

Anonymous said...

I always catch myself saying "bedgeroom" instead of "bedroom".

Anonymous said...

I am white. I am from Chicago. I talk like I am from Chicago. There is no need to say, "African Americans in the Chicago region speak the Chicago dialect" unless you plan naming every other race in the city. Most anyone born, raised, and living in Chicago is likely to have the Chicago dialect. While African Americans make up the largest minority group in Chicagoland, they are not alone the face of Chicago. Chicago is a prime example of America's melting pot, and will not designate it's dialect to a certain race of people! That is absurd!

Laura Erickson said...

I'm a white female public speaker who is often introduced as being from Duluth, MN, where I live. But after a talk, people usually come up to me and say that although I may live in Duluth, I'm clearly from Chicago. I was born in the city but when I was four moved to Northlake (which I always pronounced as spelled, but a lot of my friends called it Nortlake). I always have pronounced it ChiCAWgo.

Anonymous said...

south siders have a distinct variation of da Shi-kA-go accent.

B. from Bridgeport / McKinnley Park

Lazaruseifer said...

I am from Liverpool in the UK, and I am very interested as using Chicago accent as a stand point for my American accent, as I feel we in Liverpool (John Lennon), share a lot of similarity's with Chicagoans and New Yorkers alike..

Im a tad confused though.

MrRightandWrong said...

Commenting on what anon @ 12:27 said, and being from Chicago, I find that most people that I've met from other regions throughout the rest of the continental united states that own houses aren't aware that they even have a "front room." I believe that "living rooms" or "family rooms" are what they have in their houses.

Oh yeah, and I'm Black - I hail from Hyde Park, I say ChiCAHgo, I drive a CAH, and people have asked me if I'm from BAHston or not, but the d/th sound that reveals itself consistently is a surefire way to let people know I'm a Chicagoan.

Anonymous said...

I didn't see anything in this article mentioning the flat a in place of au (Shamburg, Milwakee, etc.)

Anonymous said...

I laughed so hard when reading this post and comments. I left Chicago when I was 8, and I always blamed my weird language anomalies on my parents. My wife tells me I was raised by idiots, but it was just Chicago! I was forced to give up that "front room" term decades ago. What about "parkway"? It's the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street. Nobody ever knows what the hell I'm talking when I use that word.

Anonymous said...

I'm a Chicagoan (north side) and we don't have an accent except to visitors. :) Just to throw a change-up I noticed something fun while in the US Navy. People pick up each others' accents until they drink up. Then they revert to their own hometown accent.

I've had coworkers in the Navy say we sound like newscasters... but not THIS ChicAHgoan! I'm prone to starting up an accent other than Chicago with the "drinking accent" du jour being Australian!

As far as the "extreme" Chicago accent, it sounds like a white south sider. If you want a _stable_ Chicago accent, find a Chicagoan who is not too-well-traveled. Otherwise, you could find yourself playing "dialect roulette".

Anonymous said...

I am a white female from the southside of ChiCAHgo and I will catch myself blending the "t" from the end of a word to the "y" from the beginning of the next word, i.e. "without you" becomes "withou chou." Is this a Chicago thing or do other regions do it as well? I also had a speech teacher tell our class that as Chicagoans we drop our d's and t's at the end of words.

Anonymous said...

If you think the use of the term "parkway" is strange, in New Orleans, that same strip of grassy area is called the "Neutral Ground".

Yes, I am from the Sowt'side of the Great City of ChiCAHgo. Over by dere. Yes, I have a frunchroom. As far as I am concerned, "Shamburg" is the edge of the eart', and there is no reason to ever leave the city.

Go Bears!

Shannon said...

im from ChiCAHgo and i THINK i have a generally mild chicago accent. although there are a bunch of words that i say like "frunchroom" "grage"<-in stead of "ga-rage". and i definetly say the letter "t" as a "d" alot. i also use alot of chicago slang. so maybe its not that mild? haha. nontheless this subject is very interesting to me.

Anonymous said...

I love this article, it brought back memories of being in first grade and getting in trouble for writing words like 'Bedgroom' and 'Dismorning' because that's all I'd ever heard. It's pretty eye-opening to see discover how much of an accent i actually have.
What about the use of the word 'Hunnerd' instead of 'Hundred.' Even my mom (Born & raised Mount Prospect) tells me not to say that word like that because I sound like a Chicagoan.

Anonymous said...

Seconding the use of "hunnerd" for "Hundred". I grew up in the south suburbs around 159th St, which is of course pronounced "a-hunnerd fifty nint' street". :-) (I am both female and suburban, if this helps earlier theories.)

We all say "aig" for "egg". My 2 year old asked me for aigs one day and I thought "well isn't that an odd way to say egg" until I realized that was exactly how I said it!

Another common one I've heard is "boss" instead of "bus", but I've lost that in my own speech since moving up to the northwest suburbs about a decade ago. But I'll never lose the back-of-the-throat pronunciation of my favorite football team, even if slurring together "Baerz" gets me teased by non-locals!

Anonymous said...

Your 'guess' of African Americans being the largest population in Chicago was wrong. 2000 census says 37% compared to 42% whites. that is all

Anonymous said...

I am a 23 year-old female from the nw suburbs.I moved to pittsburgh two years ago. I never even realized that I had an accent till I moved here and everyone makes fun of how I end sentences with with!"you comin' with"They say I should say with me.Another word stoop or front landing for a homes entrance is very Shicahgo.And Baffroom for bathroom.And I'll be darned if I ask for "anoter Jewels bag" instead of a plastic one!Dahnt werry bout it!

Anonymous said...

i really think the chicago dialect differs between your economic status, north/south/west side, and race.

a white southsider has a slightly different pronunciation of words than a white westsider. and the same goes for a black southsider and black westsider.

i think the days of the extremely heavy, chicago dialects are gone with the emergence of media outlets. my white, westside (austin), working class parents are the last generation for this dying language.

hugs, a chiCAWgoan.

ps. where do they say parkway? it's a gangway.

Katey Szum said...

Just twittered about your site, specifically the Chicago accent. My site, www.dialexicon.com is an interactive warehouse for American accents. Collecting accents submitted from all over the US.

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xrenaax said...

i'm a chicago native. In a tiny italian-american neighborhood called Bridgeport.. Where U.S. Cellular Field resides in.

I never eally noticed my accent much but when a cousin visited from Texas he once made fun of me for saying coffee. He said I pronounced it as CAH-fee but most of my friends pronounce it as COOOUGH-ee. Or turtle, I say TAR-TUL. Or DON instead of DAWN.

"Wher's the "DON" dish soap?"

Haha. At times my father who is also from Texas told me I resembled a New Yorker when I spoke.

But we're the only city I know of to say say "front room" instead of "living room".
lol!

Anonymous said...

I am from the North Side of Chicago, Jewish neighborhood of Rogers park and grew up there in the 1960s. Since I have lived in NW WIsconsin, I have been told time and time again that I sound like I am from New York. Is this a code word for "I know you are Jewish?" or are these observations from people who don't do much travel, watch tv, and think anyone with dark hair is from NY?

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Anonymous said...

I was born in Chicago, I moved to Milwaukee at age 4 however my father's family going back several generations lived in the city of Chicago. I notice that my grandma does indeed say chiCAWgo. It also sounds like she pronounces "bear" and "beer" the same (both sounding like "beer") Another difference is that certain words like "cliff" sound like they end in a "t" so it sounds like she's saying "clift." She also pronounces the name David kind of like "Davit"

Ernie said...

I find it hard to be descriptive, let alone prescriptive with Chicago dialects and accents: To me it always seemed that it was Region5 plus variants, like Wisconsin Nordic influence.

When I was a kid, I went to visit my Uncle in Highland Park, and I couldn't understand my cousins when they said it was time for "bad." I've heard just about every conceivable pronunciation of the town often even, "ShyiCAHguh."

ksb9296 said...

I live on the south side of Chicago in Fuller Park in between Bridgeport and Bronzeville eight blocks south of white sox park. We call it a front room, but the n is slightly pronounced and the t disappears so its more like "fron-room". I LOLed at the person who said we say 'grage' not 'ga-rage'. That is too true.
If you live in Chicago and listen to the CTA announcer, you know he's not from here the way he says street names.
Chicagoans say:
Ray-scene(Racine)
Hallstid(Halsted)
Row-suh-velt(Roosevelt)
Luh-sal(LaSalle)

Just to name a few.

Anonymous said...

ok im from the north and im a teen and this is intresting b/c reading these comments im starting 2 notice how i talk. like if a word ends with a i exxagerate it or i put an a there and make it long. ive never even herd of the word front room for living room and wen i said it i did say fronch room. but idt tht ppl say dis instead of this very much anymore. some people will ask though if i go somehwere else like r u from chicago. and i say yeaahh. and they laugh. but you can not say were not correct because its a way a midwestern group will talk against a eastern way or sourthern. oh yeah also about south i think i say salth instead of south. i agree we exaggerate our vowels. but wen u say we say dis instead of this its annoying.

Anonymous said...

also i agree w/ksb9296..reading those words the first way is how i wud normally pronounce it.

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Anonymous said...

I am a middle class suburban female from the south west suburbs and I pronounce the city name as chiCAHguh. In the chicagoland area it is generally accepted that the caw pronounciation is used on the northside and the cah pronounciation is used on the southside.

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FGFM said...

Pronouncing Racine with the accent on the first syllable and a long "A" is more common in the black population, but almost everyone in Chicago says Clyborn instead of the CTA's Clyburn for Clybourn.

Susan said...

1984: One Chewsday, my auntie from Shamburg took me down to the Art Institute to see that Daygass guy, then we went over there on Jackson street to get some cheese blintzies. She spent her girlhood up the street from Wrigley Field.

Scott said...

"Flustrated" instead of "frustrated."

AnnaRose88 said...

Finally. Thank you so much for writing this. I've been wondering about this for months. I met some people from Texas (yes, they have QUITE the accent) and they kept making fun of my "Chicago" accent. I had no idea what they were talking about.

PS. Instead of saying "did you" I've heard a lot of people say "djew" (it looks weird when you spell it)

Anonymous said...

also AnnaRose88 "howdge you" instead of "how'd you" or "jawanna" instead of "do you wanna"

JHitts said...

@Anonymous, 1:06 PM: I think people automatically assume Jewish people sound like they're from New York. The sad part is, this doesn't happen to just uncultured country people. I'm not Jewish, but one of my best friends from Detroit is. He has a normal Detroit/Michigan accent (which isn't too different from the Chicago accent, but I notice a lot of differences... but that's because I think about it too much). But when we were in college (at a small school in rural Michigan), people — like, people from the town that didn't travel much, not necessarily fellow students — would always be surprised when they found out he was Jewish. Like, "Oh really? You're Jewish? That's weird! You don't SOUND Jewish!" I think the implication being that all Jews lived on the East Coast.

Anyway, I've noticed Hollywood sometimes gets this wrong too. There's this movie with Susan Sarandon that takes place in St. Louis (I can't remember the name of it), but there are a bunch of Jewish characters in it, but they all sound like they're from New York.

All this to say that: Midwestern accents exist! And they span all cultures! Thatnk you for this blog entry!

Bonnie C. said...

I've lived in the midwest since I was 8, moved to Chicago (and I pronounce it "Sh-Kaw-Go") last year. The only time I've heard somebody with that really thick, Blues Brothers type Chicago accent was from a middle aged white man from the near south side (Bridgeport?). I've lived in the area for most of my life and I had to have him repeat some of what he was saying, his accent was so thick and he spoke so fast! As for the rest of us, it seems to be a good mix of the Chicago accent and Minnesotan; bag sounds a bit like beg, phone sounds more like phoon, car is curr, etc. They're very similar, but there's a difference!
I'd link a recording of myself speaking, but I don't think it's a true accent since I moved from New Hampshire to Florida to Northern Illinois to here (Jefferson Park; "Jiff Perk").

3J255 said...

Not all blacks have one dialect, i'm black and i do pronounce my "this" that way. My family is from Mississippi and every time I visit them they always comment "Oooh that chiacgo accent is soooo strong" or "who are 'youse guys" (that's how I say you guys and I always get he'll for it). Also when telling a story my mom often goes "and i says, I says to her/him, I says...."

Anonymous said...

DA BEARS

Anonymous said...

I am from the south side, and I never really thought that we had an accent. But pretty much everything you guys have said is spot on. And btw, I pronounce Chicago (Shi-cah-go) :) And those of you who said we end our sentences w/ the word "with" is soooo right! I think we have a tendency to end our sentences with different prepositions. i.e. "Where y'at?" So anyway, thanks for writing this! I have learned a lot :)

chaitanyacatering.com said...

That is the beauty..each city has own and unique dialect

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http://www.businessinsider.com/22-maps-that-show-the-deepest-linguistic-conflicts-in-america-2013-6#everyone-knows-that-the-midwest-calls-it-pop-the-northeast-and-west-coast-call-it-soda-while-the-south-is-really-into-brand-loyalty-11

Mike Taylor said...

They attribute latinos to caucasions for some reason. ..

Mike Taylor said...

Some really do sound like new yorkers. I as a South sider to a now southern burbinite have an accent distinctly different from the aforementioned new Yorklike accent yet I'm still easily identified. Kinda weirded me out as a child lol

Mike Taylor said...

We vary pretty greatly here n Chicago

Mike Taylor said...

Well put.

Mike Taylor said...

What's weird is how well most can differentiate "can" vs "can't"

Mike Taylor said...

Multiracial South sider (black and hispanic 3rd American born generation) my ts are soft if not dropped, the word "contemplate" is an exception (first t) "bag" resembles "beg" but there is an audible differentiation. Lots of "whatcha doin" goes on with me and my "pin" "pihns" whereas I love writing with "pehns" over "pehnsuhls" My "Os" will sound like "Us"to the untrained ear but I differentiate them too. My decks resemble my BEGGings more than my eggs do but egg and aide sound an awful alike

Anonymous said...

I have confused people when my stories of growing up in Chicago include 'cutting through a gangway'.

Anonymous said...

Though there are some exceptions, I find it to be just the opposite. I find caw to be used more on the southside and cah more on the northside. Listen to any tapes of either Mayor Daley and how they pronounce Chicago with the caw sound. I had a friend from Evergreen Park who spoke the same way. The Daley family is from Bridgeport on the southside. I am originally from Waukegan, where I believe most, but not all, say it with the cah sound.