Our (almost) last word on the Chuh Kaw Go accent

Enough with the stereotypes, what did our vocal volunteers actually sound like?

December 18, 2012

Annie Minoff

A while back we asked for your help answering this question from Des Plaines native Sarahlynn Pablo:

Where does our unmistakable and loveable Chicago accent come from?

Great question. And you can find a full treatment of it in our first blog post. But we thought Sarahlynn’s question demanded a follow-up: What do Chicagoans sound like today? Are they using those elongated vowel sounds linguists associate with the Chicago accent?

That’s where you came in — all 361 of you. That’s how many voicemail recordings we got of “Too Hot for Hockey,” the passage George Mason University linguist Corrine McCarthy wrote for us. McCarthy studies Chicago vowels, and she crafted our “Too Hot for Hockey” script, which is supposed to draw out stereotypically Chicago sounds from people who read it.

With her listening guide in hand, we set out to evaluate 361 accents. Here’s what we heard:

What did “dose Chicawgoans” sound like, anyway?

First, a disclaimer. This investigation relied on volunteer participation. People with stronger, more Chicago-ish accents were probably more inclined to play along, which means these 361 voices do not represent a microcosm of Chicago. But here’s what we can say: In this limited, non-random sample, there were a heck of a lot of Chicago vowels.

The most popular was the raised “a” vowel that transforms words like “hat” and “sadly” into “h-ea-t” and “s-ea-dly.” Approximately three out of five samples had this.

Second most popular was the fronted “o” vowel. A little more than half of speakers pronounced words like “hot” and “pop” like “h-ah-t” and “p-ah-p.”

Bringing up the rear was the backed “uh” vowel found in the words “bus,” “puck,” and “enough.” Only one in five people pronounced these words like “b-aw-s,” “p-aw-ck” and “en-aw-gh,” though this was also the hardest vowel to hear.

Also notable was the way Chicagoans handled the distinction between “Don” and “Dawn.” Traditionally, Chicagoans have maintained a distinction between “ah” and “aw” vowel sounds. Sure enough, about three in four speakers pronounced “Don” and “Dawn” differently, bucking a national trend towards merging those two sounds.

As for that most beloved of “superfan” traits — the pronunciation of “th” as “d” — only twenty-three speakers did this. Turns out we might just be rooting for the Bears (not, da Bears) after all.

Where’s the Chicago accent going?

Sarahlynn asked us where the Chicago accent came from, but we were just as interested in where it’s going.

Given our saturation in national broadcast media, you might expect that local dialects would be beating a fast retreat. Not so, according to revered sociolinguist William Labov, who was among the first to study the Chicago accent and name the phenomenon behind it: the Northern Cities Shift. He’s speculated that an ongoing vowel shifting could push Chicago English even further away from “standard” pronunciation. If Labov is right, today’s Chicago kids would grow up sounding even more Chicago-ey than their parents.

Hoping for some insight into the Chicago accent’s future, we sent McCarthy fifteen recordings overall, five from each of the following age groups: ages 65 to 74, ages 35 to 44, and another group from people 18 and under. Her assessment of those voices seems to put a damper on the “Chicago English is getting stronger” theory. Whereas every one of the older Chicagoans McCarthy listened to had at least one Chicago vowel, only one Chicago kid did.

So is it time to add Chicago English to the endangered dialects list? Not yet, according to McCarthy. For one thing, some of the samples she listened to came from very young children. 

“We can’t be sure to what extent their vowels are affected by their parents’ vowels” she says. 

That is, catch these same kids in their late teens, hanging outside school with their friends, and they could sound very different.

In the meantime, listen to Joey Savaiano, a nine-year-old northsider with all three Chicago vowels.

Has immigration changed the Chicago accent? 

Earlier, as I searched for answers about the Chicago accent’s origins, I ran this theory by McCarthy: Could all the foreign immigration to Chicago in the 20th century have had something to do with the city’s hallmark accent? 

Her answer? Probably not. 

“A lot of those [dialect] differences iron themselves out within a generation,” McCarthy says. “The first generation that grows up in Chicago is, for the most part, indistinguishable from people who are second, third, and fourth generation.”

Your recordings support that. Status as first generation (born outside the U.S.), second generation (parents born outside the U.S.) or third generation (grandparents born outside the U.S.) had no bearing on a speaker’s use of Chicago vowels. McCarthy reported one exception to this rule: first generation Chicagoans with strong enough foreign accents to convince her that they had immigrated to the U.S. in late childhood or adulthood. These speakers had little to no Chicago vowels.

What about African-Americans and Hispanics?

For years, the consensus among linguists was that African-Americans didn’t use Chicago vowels. Walt Wolfram of North Carolina State University was among the first linguists to study the dialect known as African-American English in 1960s Detroit. Back then, he recalls, what we think of as the Chicago accent “was clearly restricted to the white population.”

In 2012 Chicago, though, that’s no longer the case. After listening to our samples, Wolfram says the Chicago accent — or as its known in linguistic circles, the “Northern Cities Shift” — is “clearly starting to make inroads with the current generation of African-American speakers. ... I mean that’s clear.”

To understand why, listen to Kelly Miles, who identified herself as African-American. Kelly’s “hot,” “odd,” and “bar” are fronted Chicago-style, but her pronunciation of “friends” has the Southern lilt Wolfram identifies with African-American English. Some Chicago vowels, combined with some African-American English pronunciations? That combination is 100 percent Chicago.

(We followed up on this thread thanks to a great comment from Amanda Hope and did a third article for this series on the Chicago "blaccent.")

Kelly Miles grew up in Bronzeville and Hyde Park. She told us her parents and grandparents are also Chicago natives.

When I spoke to UIC linguist Richard Cameron for our first blog post, he hypothesized that we might have an emerging Latino English dialect in Chicago. To get another perspective, I sent twenty-five readings from Hispanic speakers to linguistic anthropologist Norma Mendoza-Denton of the University of Arizona.

Mendoza-Denton studies Chicano English, a dialect spoken mainly by Mexican-Americans. But if our self-identified Hispanic volunteers were speaking Chicano English, Latino English, or any local variant of those dialects, Mendoza-Denton couldn’t tell. 

“Too Hot for Hockey,” she says, is great for bringing out a speaker’s Chicago vowels, but it’s terrible at highlighting Chicano English features, such as the shortening of the “th” sound in a word like “think” (so it sounds like “tink”) and the raising of the “i” vowel in a word like “running” (so it sounds like “runeeng”).

The jury’s still out on whether Chicago has a local Latino English dialect, but here’s something Mendoza-Denton could tell me with confidence: those Hispanic speakers she heard? 

“They are just robust native speakers of Chicago English!”

Annie Cue’s family hails from Cuba. Her first language was Spanish. But she has both the fronted “o” and raised “a” vowels associated with Chicago English.

What about neighborhood?

Sociolinguist Bill Labov once disappointed a reporter by telling him this about New York’s native “Brooklynese” dialect: “The fact is — but don’t write this, because it will enrage people — Brooklynese is exactly the same whether it’s spoken in the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island or in Brooklyn.”

Here’s hoping Chicagoans are less easily enraged than New Yorkers, because our samples and McCarthy’s own research are clear on the following point: When it comes to Chicago English, neighborhood doesn’t matter. North Side, West Side, South Side, outer counties — a raised “a” vowel is a raised “a” vowel. And in a city that often seems fractured and divided, that’s a little bit of uniformity I can live with.

A big thanks to everyone who submitted an accent, as you made this project possible! Keep the conversation going by sharing both of our accents stories and contributing to our comments section. Also, keep an ear out for our follow-up story on African-American English coming in 2013. Is it really as uniform across the country as some linguists think?

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