In Defense of Da Chi-KAH-go Accent

 In Branding

Did you hear the joke about the tourist who stopped a Chicagoan on the street and said, “I just love your accent.” (For some of you Chicagoans, the punchline isn’t so punchy, as it is painfully familiar.)

To which the Chicagoan replies: “I don’t have an accent. YOU have an accent!”

Chicago is many things to many people. It’s great hotdogs, better pizza, Lake Michigan, the Sears Tower, the Lovable Winners at Wrigley Field, and of course, the Chicago Bears – perhaps the most Chicago thing about Chicago, even when they’re not relevant nationally. And obviously, there’s that accent.

You have the Midwestern American accent, considered to be the most American of all the regional accents. And there’s the Chicago accent. Which to outsiders vaguely resembles English.

Where Da Hayck did it Come From?

The Chicago accent is what makes Chicago great because it is a melting pot of sounds greatly influenced by the waves of immigrants that came through the city – Irish, Italian, Polish, Croatian, Serbian, and Ukrainian. It was also heavily influenced by the class of its speakers and their blue-collar attitudes.

One major factor in shaping the Chicago accent was the construction of the Erie Canal from 1817 to 1825. Workers from many ethnic backgrounds migrated from the East Coast westward in unprecedented numbers, many of whom settled in Chicago. Each had their own variety of English. And according to linguist, William Labov, conditions were perfect for quick changes to the language.

As the th sound is rare outside of English, it became a fast casualty. It wasn’t unusual for th to become just t, or even a d sound. As in dem Bulls, and da Bears.

Also, in the 1830s, pioneers from New England – known as Yankees – began to settle the vast region of the lower Great Lakes, from Rochester, New York to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Their migration is responsible for introducing the nasally sound to the region, along with a slight change in vowel sounds, known as the Northern Cities Vowel Shift.

The height of the Chicago accent came during the city’s industrial era. The connection between blue collar work and regional speech is always strong. These are folks who didn’t go to college, and rarely even left their own neighborhoods. The men went from factory, to bar, to home, all likely inside the same community.

And then …

Why Da Hayck is it Disappearing?

Rural America is becoming extinct. The young people move out. The older people move on. Eventually a small town becomes a ghost town. It’s inevitable.

Changes to language are also inevitable. In the case of the Chicago accent, the young people aren’t moving away. But they are going to college, they are connected in ways previous generations were not, and their world has gotten a lot smaller, more multicultural, and more multiethnic, all of which breed homogeny.

It also doesn’t help that we moved from an industrial era to a technological one, where proper speech is considered more necessary. And what was once a small community where everyone spoke and thought and acted alike is now a global community that can be reached without ever leaving your home.

What may be most odd about the Chicago accent is that it’s been disappearing while at the same time celebrated. You may be tempted to consider this a win in preserving the language. But could it also be seen as too much attention (SNL!)? Too much a stereotype? Too much a caricature of itself, perhaps even fueling its demise?

How Da Hayck do We Save It?

You can’t save it. The same way you can’t save thousands of small towns from becoming thousands of small ghost towns.

Change is inevitable. Even changes to language. And sometimes those changes come quickly.

Think about the effects cell phones and texting have had on our language in such a short period of time. Those changes are here to stay and evolve. As the next ones wait for us beyond the horizon.

The good news is that we can jump on YouTube any time we like and get our fill of the th becoming a d, where hot is pronounced hat and pop becomes pap, and where the short a is much longer than it was intended to be. 

Technology may be partially responsible for the demise of the Chicago accent. But in this case, it’s also responsible for preserving it.

Thanks goes to Edward McClelland whose article in The Chicago Reader inspired us!

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