The Chicago accent and the Chicago ‘blaccent’

The Chicago accent and the Chicago ‘blaccent’

WBEZ brings you fact-based news and information. Sign up for our newsletters to stay up to date on the stories that matter.

A few months ago, Curious City tackled the enigma known as the “Chicago accent” — its origins, who speaks with it, and how the accent is evolving today. One important qualification? Not all Chicagoans speak the dialect made famous by SNL’s superfans. Linguists say African-American Chicagoans are more likely to speak a dialect called AAE: African-American English.

In our first article on the Chicago accent, I characterized AAE this way:

“AAE is remarkable for being consistent across urban areas; that is, Boston AAE sounds like New York AAE sounds like L.A. AAE, etc.”

That description didn’t sit well with reader Amanda Hope, who left the following (unedited) comment on our website:

I’m an African-American woman who was born and raised on Chicago’s Southside but I’ve lived in Los Angeles and Washington, DC. I’ve also spent a significant amount of time in the South. Let me be the first to tell you that AAE has a variety of accents. In fact, Washington,DC and Baltimore, MD are about a 45 minute car drive away from one another and there is a stark contrast between the accents of blacks from Baltimore and the accents of blacks from DC. To take my point even further, Black Chicagoans make fun of the accent of Black St. Louis residents all the time because of their “errrrrr” sound. I’m so tired of articles and studies suggesting that African Americans are comprised of some homogenous group. There’s actually a lot of diversity among African Americans from religion to food to ACCENTS.

And, when I met Amanda in person, she elaborated. “I found myself a little offended by the statement about there being an overall African-American accent or dialect,” she said. “In my experience travelling around the country and living in different places, I have heard very different accents among African-American communities.”

The specificity of Amanda’s examples — e.g., the difference between D.C. and Baltimore AAE, as well as the St. Louis “errr” —  stuck with both me and my editor, Shawn Allee. If AAE really were “consistent across urban areas,” how could Amanda have heard these things? Was it possible that we (not to mention all those other articles and studies driving Amanda up the wall) had missed something important? We had tried highlighting the diversity of accents within Chicago, but had we missed an opportunity to highlight what makes Chicago AAE unique?

Chicago is 33 percent African-American, meaning AAE might just be the second-most spoken dialect in this city. So we at Curious City decided to do some digging: Is AAE “consistent across urban areas,” or is it diverse?

Tag, You’re It

Dialects include a distinctive grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation. But Amanda and I were concerned only with pronunciation — literally how AAE sounds and the extent to which that’s uniform. As we wrapped up our talk, Amanda suggested a place to start listening: YouTube.

In the videos she forwarded, African-American men and women, usually in their teens or twenties, read a list of words: aunt, roof, route, wash, oil, etc. This is an “accent tag.” Accent taggers rep their city’s local dialect by reading a word list. They compare notes, applaud the most local accents, and poke fun at funny pronunciations. You find out about the meme when someone else “tags” you, and once you complete the tag, you can tag others. Think of it as the schoolyard game turned high-tech — a kind of citizens linguistics project.

A YouTube user named miszjabre, for example, reads off the following: Aunt, Roof, Route, Wash, Oil, Theater, Iron, Salmon, Caramel, Fire, Water, Sure, Data, Ruin, Crayon, New Orleans, Pecan, Both, Again, Probably, Spitting image, Alabama, Lawyer, Coupon, Mayonnaise, Syrup, Pajamas, Caught, Naturally, Aluminium, Envelope.

None of the taggers I contacted could say just who drafted the original word list, but chances are it wasn’t a linguist. Professional linguists tend not to survey whether people say “care-a-mel” or “car-mel,” because those stereotypical pronunciations reveal little about a person’s linguistic roots. But there’s no question that accent tags accomplish what Amanda suggested; they show that while AAE around the country may share characteristics, it is not strictly uniform.

Just listen to how these three taggers, from Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York, pronounce “water.”

Accent tags also show that AAE speakers are thinking about regional variety. A lot, it turns out. Theopolus McGraw and Ashlee Nichols are just two of the taggers currently repping Chicago online, and their videos, combined, have more than 25,000 views. Both pronounce the word list in what they playfully term their Chicago “blaccents.” Theopolus tells me it’s a blend: a little bit typical Chicago, a little bit African-American English. He says it’s how people talked in Englewood and Chicago Heights, where he grew up.

Theopolus knows, for example, that like many of the people in his neighborhood, he drops his r’s (“You know, ‘you a hata,’ ‘I’m a playa,’ stuff like that,” he says). But he also knows he’s got those fronted Chicago vowels that make other people say he’s talking out of his nose. Ashlee acknowledges that she pronounces “towel” and “sausage” in the typical Chicago fashion (as “tahl” and “sahsage”). But she also stresses her elongated Southern vowels. She doesn’t go “in,” she says. She goes “einn.” She transforms the “i” sound in words like “nine” and “five” into an “ah.” So, she’ll say “nahne” and “fahve.”

Ashlee and Theopolus emphasize the “Chicago” in “Chicago blaccent,” because they know there are other blaccents out there. Both tell me they discovered them in college. Ashlee and Theopolus both attended historically Black universities in Florida and Washington, D.C., and they still crack up when they remember their college friends’ accents. “Floridians don’t usually put endings on their words,” Ashlee says, laughing. “They’d just change the word completely. Like the word ‘out.’ They may say ‘at’ or something like that.”

Theopolus remembers a roommate from Philadelphia who pronounced his l’s in the back in his throat. “He’d say ‘Fulladelphia’ or ‘the Iggles’ [instead of the Eagles],” he says. Theopolus drops the final “r” in a word like “car,” whereas his roommate pronounced it. Theopolus says he questioned his roommate’s practice of inserting r’s into some words. “Every time I talked to him, it was like ‘Teddy, hand me a cup of warter.’ I’m like, ‘A cup of what? What is warter?’ ”

After being immersed in blaccents from across the country at school, Theopolus has developed a theory: “In most cities, when they talk about the way people talk, that’s the standard accent. Then there’s another way, which is usually African-American, depending on the population of the city. There’s a Philadelphia accent, and then there’s a Philadelphia blaccent, because there’s a lot of Black people in Philadelphia. There’s a Baltimore accent, and then there’s a Baltimore blaccent. It’s not always going to quite sound the same.”

Listening to Ashlee and Theopolus, you might ask how the idea of AAE’s uniformity ever took hold. What, if anything, do blaccents have in common?

The origins of AAE ‘uniformity’

Last October, I talked with Richard Cameron, head of the department of linguistics at The University of Illinois at Chicago, about the city’s diverse accents. Cameron explained that AAE is a variety of English that’s often (but not always) spoken by African-Americans. There is “a great deal of uniformity and diversity within it,” he explained, “but by and large a curious aspect of AAE is its uniformity in such distant places as Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, [and] Detroit.”

Cameron wasn’t going out on a limb here. Linguists have been describing AAE as more or less “uniform” since they started studying it in Northern cities in the late 1960s. In 1972, William Labov, the father of sociolinguistics, described AAE as a “uniform dialect spoken by the majority of black young in most parts of the United States today.” But what exactly did he mean by “uniform?” As scientific language goes, it might strike you as a squishy term, but here’s what linguists seem to mean by it: AAE is “uniform” because speakers share certain core linguistic characteristics, regardless of geography.

Ashlee from Chicago records herself doing an 'accent tag'' on YouTube.

The list of so-called core characteristics can run long, but here’s a sampling. Early AAE studies concluded that AAE speakers — regardless of geography — pronounced “west” as “wes,” “bath” as “baf,” and dropped the final r in words like “fear” and “car,” pronouncing them as “feah” and “cah.” (Theopolus remarked that dropped r’s were common among his college classmates. On the list of blaccent similarities, he says, “that’s the main one.”)

When I talk to Dennis Preston and John Baugh, Professors of linguistics at Oklahoma State University and Washington University in St. Louis, they add a few additional items to the list. AAE speakers, Baugh says, are likely to merge the “i” and “e” sounds in words like “pin” and “pen,” making them nearly indistinguishable (think straight “pens” and ink “pins”). Preston says they’re also likely to transform the “i” sounds in “time” and “night” into an “ah,” pronouncing them as “tahme” and “nahght.” (Another example would be Ashlee’s “nahne” and “fahve” for “nine” and “five.”) If these pronunciations strike you as Southern, you’re right.

“If we look back at the Great Migration, then the vast majority of African-Americans who ended up in New York, Buffalo, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and places like that came from [the South],” Preston explains. “A cause for consistency is that origin. That’s the base. I mean, if it hadn’t been there, then we wouldn’t have an African-American English at all.”

Consider this: Prior to the Great Migration, African-Americans in the South tended to speak a dialect of Southern English similar to that of their white neighbors. When they migrated en masse to Northern and Western cities between 1910 and 1970, they brought those accents with them. In segregated cities such as Chicago, black migrants were forced to live together in ghettos where Southern dialects remained the local standard. Small wonder, then, that a mere two or three generations later, three African-Americans living in LA, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., might share speech features.

Challenging ‘uniformity’

But ask Walt Wolfram, an AAE pioneer and linguist based at North Carolina State University, and he’ll tell you that the uniformity narrative gets too much play. In fact, he’s gone so far as to call AAE’s uniformity a “sociolinguistic myth.” And perhaps he should know, since — by his own admission — he helped create it in the first place.

Wolfram was part of the first wave of linguists who researched AAE in Northern cities in the 1960s. (He performed his work in Detroit). At that time, he recalls, AAE was uncharted territory. “In a sense,” he explains, “it was sort of an exotic other. Most early researchers who did research on AAE, like Labov and myself, were white. And so we came into these communities as people who had grown up in segregated situations. I would say that that was reflected in some of the things [we noticed].”

As newcomers not yet attuned to AAE’s subtleties, Wolfram and his colleagues noticed uniformity. They were “totally impressed” he says, by the fact that African-American speech in New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, and LA shared features that differed from those of the surrounding white populations. Uniformity became his and other linguists’ “theme,” he says, and — wittingly or unwittingly — they perpetuated it. “I think we overlooked our own biases in terms of seeing regionality,” he says. Which doesn’t mean that African-Americans overlooked claims of uniformity. Wolfram remembers fielding hard questions from African-American attendees of his talks over the years — questions he now wishes he’d taken more seriously.

As it happened, Wolfram’s “aha moment” didn’t occur until the 1990s, when he began studying African-American speakers in long-standing, rural North Carolina communities. When he played tape of these older, rural African-Americans to study participants, he was surprised to find that 90 percent of listeners misidentified the speakers as white. After generations living alongside white Carolingians in isolated, rural communities, African-American Carolingians had started to sound like their neighbors. It’s an extreme example of what linguists sometimes call long-term accommodation: the process whereby accents take on features of surrounding dialects. Accommodation is the biggest source of regional difference within AAE, and it’s probably the root of most of the differences Ashlee and Theopolus observed in college. Remember Theopolus’ roommate, the Philadelphian who retained the final “r” in “car”? By not dropping his r’s, he stood out among his African-American classmates, but chances are he would have fit in with other Philadelphians. Like Theopolus and Ashlee, the roommate had a “blend”: part Philly, part AAE.

Theopolus from Chicago's south side records himself doing an 'accent tag' on YouTube.
Everyone practices linguistic accommodation to some extent, usually unconsciously. But Ashlee and Theopolus suggest that African-Americans may feel greater pressure to do it. “We don’t speak the norm,” Ashlee says. “So if we speak differently than the norm, we’re looked down upon generally.” For her, African-American English is largely about pitch. She believes that African-Americans often speak at a lower register than their peers. (She could be right. In a forthcoming article on AAE prosody, North Carolina State University linguist Erik Thomas cites research suggesting that African-Americans may speak at a lower overall register than their peers, or, alternately, that they may employ a wider range of pitches in informal speech.) For Ashlee, accommodation means trying to speak at a higher register with people she doesn’t know, enunciating more clearly until she gets a sense of whether the person “seems cool and open-minded.” “I hate that. I hate having to do that,” she says.

Theopolus doesn’t think he consciously shifts his speech, but he’s equally aware of the consequences of speaking a certain way. A former girlfriend, he explains, was part African-American and part Irish. She spoke with a “typical Chicago” accent. His cousins called her “bougie,” and it riled him. “I’d say, she’s not bougie, she just grew up with a Chicago accent. Just because she talks like that doesn’t mean she talks white. Just because she’s black doesn’t mean she has to have a blaccent.” Theopolus probably isn’t alone when he says he sometimes feels “stuck in the middle.” “I’m in between,” he says. “I wouldn’t ever fit in, you know, on solid ground.”

But for better or worse, regional, long-term accommodation seems to be on the uptick. In ‘60s Detroit, Wolfram recalls, AAE still sounded Southern, having no trace of the fronted vowels that would have suggested Great Lakes influence. And there was a good reason for that lack of accommodation: social segregation. For accommodation to happen, accents need to mingle. But four decades later, Wolfram says, we’re in a very different linguistic and cultural landscape. “Already today African-American speakers who live in New York sound New York. African-American speakers who have fairly extensive contact with white communities in Chicago and Philadelphia take on more of the regional qualities of those dialect areas,” he says.

Assuming we continue to see our neighborhoods, workplaces, and schools become more and more diverse (we’ve got our fingers crossed), that accommodation will likely continue. Expect to hear AAE become a lot more regional.

Whose Ears?

Clearly AAE is not completely uniform. Even supposedly “core” features like those dropped r’s can turn out to be not so “core” in different parts of the country. But then just how diverse is it? John Baugh, the AAE scholar and Professor of linguistics at Washington University in St. Louis, is just one of the many African-Americans who’ve entered the (admittedly small) sociolinguistics field since the 1960s. He suggests that your view of AAE’s uniformity or diversity may ultimately say more about you than about AAE.

Amanda Hope, who left a comment that inspired this investigation.
Baugh suggests that dialects have no unbiased listeners. “There’s a degree of linguistic relativity that comes into play based on your linguistic exposure,” he explains. “It really does matter how attuned you are to the dialects, and for obvious reasons people are attuned to the dialects in their local region, where they interact with those dialects on a day-to-day basis.”

People with extensive experience in African-American communities (think Ashlee Nichols, Theopolus McGraw, and our commenter, Amanda Hope) could be more attuned to regional difference. Pronounce “Boston” as “Bawstin” or “soft” as “sawft,” and they’ll probably notice. But as the history of AAE research demonstrates, outsiders fixate on AAE’s similarities: the dropped r’s, the merged i’s and e’s, and the conservative vowels. Frustratingly, AAE offers enough evidence to satisfy those looking for similarity or difference.

“So is AAE diverse? Is it consistent? Or does it just come down to who’s listening?” I ask Baugh.

His response?

“Yes, yes, yes.”

Have an accent video of your own you’d like to share? Show us via Twitter. Mention @WBEZCuriousCity and use #CCAccents , #AccentTag

Annie Minoff is a production assistant for WBEZ’s Sound Opinions. Follow her @annieminoff.