Saturday, January 22, 2011

How to speak like a Chicagoan

Whenever I've traveled around the country people seem to be able to spot me for a Chicagoan; they say they recognize my accent.

Dude? Chicagoans don't have accents. We're from the Midwest where American English is spoken so well and so clearly that it is the preferred form of public speaking by newcasters and other people in the media.  Why? Because it doesn't come with any heavily nuanced accent and it is therefore the most easily understood speech pattern in the United States.

All you other guys are the ones with the accents.

Unless, of course, you're from the southside of Chicago... then I don't know what the hell happened to you and why you insist on speaking as you do. It's a mystery to me and probably everyone born north of Madison Street too. It's not that you guys have an accent exactly, it's just that you're weird.

So, for all you folks from somewhere else, let me explain more fully and give some examples:

Northsiders usually sound like Bill Kurtis or Oprah, with the possible exception that if they say "oy vey" a lot or know the meaning of "mishugannah" then they're probably from Rogers Park. (See, there's an exception for every rule.) But since Rogers Park is on the northside, they're still very much northsiders. Make sense?

But if you need to recognize a southsider (and I have no idea why there'd ever be such a need), then he or she will usually sound like Hizzoner, Da Mayor (now this may change quickly because the current Mayor Daley ("The Inheritor") is retiring; he speaks this way in homage to his late father, the original Mayor Daley; everyone knows that he actually sounds just like Bill Kurtis when no one is listening but I use him as a frame of reference, OK?)

Before we go any further, I should stipulate for the record that I'm only talking about white people here, so bear that in mind (again, another exception to the rule). Black linguistics vary widely and from personal observation I tend to think that Black northsiders still sound like the rest of us yet for some strange reason that completely eludes me, Black southsiders sound like they all come from Gary. But that's a topic I best leave to the cultural anthropologists and not the casual linguist such as I.

OK, so let's just get to the real divisions between white Chicagoans. Here are some examples:

1. You: This word is consistently pronounced "U" (as in "hey, U") on the northside of Chicago. When it's singular, it is "U" and when it means "all of you, the rest of you..." well, it is still singular.

On the southside of Chicago, however, it takes on a plural "s" when it is singular (as in "yous") and when it is really meant to be inclusive of more than one person it is "yous guys."  There are no exceptions. It has nothing to do with ethnicity, class, breeding, socioeconomic status or many years in a penitentiary; I've heard Catholic nuns from St. Diverticulosis of the Southside Martyrs say "hey! yous guys! knock if off back there!" St. Di's is a very famous southside Chicago parish; it has produced a number of Chicago's most infamous ward aldermen. (I swear, this is true.)

2. Them and Those. The use of "them" and "those" on the southside, contrary to old gangster movies, really isn't pronounced "dem" and "doze." I've only heard one Chicagoan speak like this... OK, maybe two. The original Mayor Daley and an alderman named Kneecaps Boombozzoli (maybe he was the head of Streets and Sanitation, I forget). No one ever knew why those men spoke like that but legend has it that both men, when they were boys, repeatedly got knocked in the chops by nuns at St. Di's and were left with a speech impediment. Who knows? (Hmmm... on second thought, maybe that's why the current Mayor Daley speaks like he does. I suppose it's possible he had the same nuns at St. Di's. Hell, everyone knows nuns live forever so it's certainly possible.)

And before I go even further, I want to make it perfectly clear that no native Chicagoan, even a southsider, will ever say "Da Bears!" People who say "Da Bears" are transplants from Yooperland. You can spot them easily because they wear boots all year 'round called "swampers" and say a number of strange things that always begin with "Ya! Hey 'der!" To a man, they are Packer fans. When we find them in Chicago we think they're lost and turn them around and point them back toward Green Bay. Chicagoan's are very friendly like that.

There is another exception, though, and we need to address it: Mike Ditka. Ditka's one of the Bears' more legendary coaches and is well known for saying "Da Bears." Saturday Night Live picked it up and immortalized it. But Ditka wasn't born in Chicago; he was born in Carnegie, Pennyslvania. Maybe he grew up in Yooperland. Who knows?  But anyway, you get my point.

Back to "them" and "those." A southsider will consistently reverse how "them" and "those" should be used. As an example, a northsider will say "those guys over there..." and a southsider will say "them guys over there..."

You can correct a southsider until the cows come home and after you say 2,000 times "no, it's not 'them' guys over there, it's 'those' guys over there" he or she will look at you and say, "yeah, that's what I said, I said it was them guys..."

They may say a few other things to you too so be careful.

3. Say vs. sez: Northsiders will pronounce the word "say" as (no surprise here) "say," just as you would imagine. They don't say it very often either.

A southsider will pepper his speech liberally with the peculiar variation "sez" which is the same kind of plural for say that yous is for you... get it? Only it is not pronounced "says" it is pronouced "sez" and used like this:
"So, I sez to him, I sez which of them guys went with yous and so he sez back that them guys..."

Get it? 

4. But the word I find most curious is the word "asphalt."

Northsiders say "as-fault" but a southsider will insist on inserting an "h" into the first syllable.  Southsiders invariably pronounce asphalt "ash-fault." I've never heard otherwise. Why they do that I don't know. They don't ever say they're "going to kick your ash" so go figure.

The one thing that all Chicagoans agree on though is how to properly pronounce "Chicago" and so I'm sharing that with you as well.

The correct pronunciation of this great city on the lake is "Sh-kaw-go."

On that we all agree!


  1. lol. and da yoopers sez da bears is bums. got it?

  2. I grew up in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. There are lists of crazy things people from Sheboygan say, too (cross between Yooper and old German, among other things). "I'll meet you down by Prange's" is one of the most famous (infamous?) sayings. LOL.

  3. You'll find most Southsiders have been in Chicago for a few generations. The accent stems from a more ethnocentric upbringing common in blue-collar families. Oprah came to Chicago when she was 29 and Bill Kurtis when he was 26. Neither of them are born-and-raised Chicagoans.

  4. Yes, while true that Oprah and Kurtis are not really Chicagoans, let's not forget that I am a born & bred northsider and at least on my mother's side the fam goes back many generations. I'd argue that the northside is as ethnic as the southside but what I suspect is that the southside has been more insular and maybe (and I have no idea if it's true or not) that is more a result of there at one time being a greater proportion of lower & middle class blue collar workers on the southside vs middle & upper middle class white collar workers further north. Hard to say and I think when you get into areas like this that it becomes very, very complicated which is exactly why my post was meant to be very light hearted and not at all scholarly! I sure hope yous guys all understood that.... :) Thanks for the comment! (Wow; I'm impressed! You found this almost a yr after I wrote it and 3 mos after I quit writing on this blog! I've moved to Maine and am grappling with how to transform the Windy City Author into a new persona with a touch of the flavor of Maine... stay tuned for that!) :)

  5. what about sahh-sage and eye-talian? also i pronounce it chi-cah-go

  6. Us Pollocks from the NW side also say yous!

  7. I'm so fricken' south I woke up in Texas, Howdy Yous Guys" but seriously I was born in Cook County Like all Great people are. But never Really got know my Fair City That is Chicago.

  8. aww what do u know, your prolly from the nortside anyway. NEWS FLASH: people from the soutside never cared what what you nortsiders say anyway.