Editor’s Note: This post first appeared September 19, 2010.
CHICAGO – One of the funniest things I’ve heard in many years was said to me by a co-worker, a lifelong Chicagoan.
“There’s no such thing as a Chicago accent,” he said.
I laugh every time I think of it.
Of course, like everyone else who grew up here, he pronounced “Chicago” as “Shuh-CAW-go,” and, as well-educated as he is, I bet that after a beer or two, he would have said “dere” and “t’ing.”
He said it with a straight face, and he meant it. (Not like the Facebook group, “There is no such thing as a Chicago accent!,” which appears to have been started by individuals who, in fact, believe the opposite.)
“Dis’s hayer sapose ta tawk. Dis’s narmal. Ever’wun eltz tawks funny.”
All right, now I’m exaggerating. And I’d agree that there is no such thing as the Chicago accent. There are, of course, several. It’s a very diverse city. Ukrainians and African-Americans and Vietnamese and Assyrians and Bosnians all have their own accents. As do Uptown Kentuckians and the few remaining Andersonville Swedes. The most prominently parodied Chicago accent is a dialect that is mainly found among the white working class – specifically, white working class individuals who were born and raised here. Due to demographic changes, that accent is quite noticeably on the decline.
Of Chicago’s 2,896,016 people (as of the 2000 census), 39.9 percent are logged in the records as “white,” but with the shift from a manufacturing base to a service and professional economy, and with the gentrification of much of the city, the nasally honk made famous by Bob Smigel’s “Superfans” sketches on Saturday Night Live is becoming a rare sound.
Most white people you hear talking in Chicago today are likely to speak with a standard flat Midwestern dialect, because most of the young white professionals are relocating to Chicago from smaller Midwestern cities. Meanwhile, longtime white working class residents continue to migrate to the suburbs, or to gradually disappear via attrition.
The Chicago accent we’re talking about here is more properly classified as a Great Lakes speech pattern than a purely Midwestern one. It has more in common with what you hear in Cleveland and Buffalo than in Minneapolis and Iowa City.
Key characteristics of this patois include liberal sprinklings of superfluous definite articles and possessives, as well as unusual prepositional phrases. For example, a typical interrogative sentence would go, “Didja remember ta pick up da milk over at Da Jewel’s, over by dere?”
(A popular supermarket chain in Chicago is called “Jewel” – traditionally known as “Da Jewel’s” by many local people. Similarly, “Soldier Field” is “Soldier’s Field,” “Mr. Beef” is “Mr. Beef’s,” etc. – the apparent assumption being that every place of business is owned and operated by an individual, after whom the establishment is named.)
Yes, this classic Chicago accent is getting scarce “in the field,” as the linguists say. I can’t remember the last time I heard a bona fide Shuh-caw-goan say “over by dere.” Before much longer, Chicago will sound just like Wisconsin, or (shudder) Indiana.
So my mood was elevated by what wafted over the aural transom into my troubled mind as I was strolling down Glenwood Avenue in Edgewater this afternoon – right after the Bears’ 27 to 20 drubbing of the Dallas Cowboys.
Two lanky middle-aged white gentlemen with salt-&-pepper bottle-brush mustaches (it wasn’t strictly necessary to lay actual eyes on them to know about the mustaches) were doing a little bit of masonry work on a graystone two-flat. One guy was standing in the front yard and the other guy was up on the porch roof (pronounced, in Chicagoese, “ruff”).
“Hey!” the first guy yelled up to the second guy. “Do you want da radio up dere?!”
“Da radio! Do you want it?!?!”
“Oh! Radio! Yeah! Yeah, but dere’s no electric!”
“I said, dere’s no electric!”
“Da electric’s right dere by yer right hand! If it wuz any closer, it’d be in yer right hand!”
“I cooden even see it!”
There’s your proof – the “Chicago accent” is not extinct. Over by dere.