The Chicago Accent, Slang, and Culture
Growing up just outside of Chicago in an area known as "the region," I thought I had a hint of Chicago in my accent. Later, I realized not only do I have a reasonably clear Michigan accent, but there is something that makes the Chicago accent special.
The Chicago accent is an Inland North American accent as is Michigan's, and very nasally as well. And it's uniquely, well... Chicaaahgo (or Chi-caw-go, depending on what side of town you're from!) After writing about the Michigan accent and my other piece, "Ope! The Midwest Accent & Slang Terms", I decided an article on the Chicago accent was long overdue.
The Windy City?
Sometimes when the weather gets bad, folks will say, "Well, it is the windy city, after all." Saying this will immediately mark you out as someone from out of town.
Chicago is not called the Windy City because of the weather. We're called this because we could not stop bragging about hosting the 1893 Columbian Exposition. We were "full of air" about the issue. In addition, some Chicagoans call it the Windy City because of the politicians.
Etymology of Chicago's Neighborhoods
Da Bears: Chicago's Letter D
One of the most well-known bits of Chicago-speak is the letter D. The "th" sound found in words like this, that, and there turns into a d sound. In fact, you may hear someone very clearly say "dis or dat" instead of "this or that."
While it's not quite as strong as the D-sound found in SNL's sketch "Bill Swerky's Super Fans," it's there.
There's nothing more "Chicago" than Da Bears (and that's exactly how they're referred.) If you refer to the football team by The Bears, you must not hail from Chi-caw-go.
A Spoof of Chicago Fame: Da Bears, Mike Ditka (slathered in a thick Chicago accent)
The Short U and A
The short u (as in the word hut) has a more aww sound. This is reminiscent of New Jersey's coffee (cawfee) but not quite as strong. This also happens with Chicago's short a.
Because of this, words like hot dog very slightly sound more like haht dahg.
Saving time with the 'ch'
Instead of saying that you're looking at a picture, in Chicago, you'll want to say you're lookin' atta' pitcher. It's a lot about saving time. Cut out the "ct" and replace it with a "ch" sounds and you'll be able to say a lot more in a shorter amount of time (like a real Chicagoan.)
For Chicagoans on the south side, there’s no th sound. It's just a t: One, two, tree, four.
Why is Chicago called the Second City?
Chicago Slang & Culture
Aside from the accent, there are some slang terms and other things that are unique to the Windy City. Some of these are a result of the accent and some are a result of Chicago culture.
Second City - Chicago sometimes referred to as the Second City. The name comes from the city having been rebuilt after the Great Chicago Fire. Chicago was also the second-most-populous city in the country at one time. Second City is also the name of arguably the best comedy club in the world, and it's located right here in Chicago!
Second City Comedy Club is where Saturday Night Live vets many of their acts. And I mean lots of comedians hail from here: Tina Fey, John Belushi, Jim Belushi, Dan Akroyd, John Candy, Steve Carell, Amy Poehler, Alan Alda, Chris Farley, Steven Colbert, Bill Murray, I could go on...
Mahm - This is what Chicagoans say instead of mom. Notice that there is that flat and nasally 'a.'
Pop - As with other Midwestern states, folks in Illinois drink pop. Soda is for laundry. That's pronounced pahp, by the way.
Prairie - A vacant lot.
Jewlery - Being from the Chicago area, I can't say I've ever heard someone say the full-on jewelry. It's almost hard to say. Here in the region, and in Chicago, it's often pronounced jewlery.
Chicago dog - A Chicago dog is an all-beef hot dog served on a poppy seed bun. There are some variations, but most Chicago dogs have yellow mustard, sweet pickle relish, chopped onions, a pickle spear, slices of tomato, and pickled sport peppers. Of course, I didn't forget that it's all topped with celery salt.
A Chicago dog is all you need. Anyone ordering a hot dog with ketchup is apparently from out of town.
Over by - If you're referring to an object's location, it's not just "by." Macy's (still Marshall Field's in my mind) is not just by Grant Park. It's over by Grant Park.
Over dare - A phrase used in conjunction with "over by" is "over dare," as in "We went over dare to dat joint over by Midway."
Go to the show - Growing up, my grandmother would always ask if I wanted to go to the show. Seeing a movie in the theater was her favorite pastime, but my friends and I just called it going to the movies. I figured it was something from her generation, but more and more I hear Chicago folks calling it going to the show.
The graj - This is where you park your car if you're lucky enough to have one. It's not pronounced garage. That's just way too many syllables for a fast-talking Chicagoan.
And, of course, if you're not lucky enough to have a home with a garage, you may have to rely on:
Dibs - Dibs is a notoriously awful parking situation that comes from a mixture of a lack of parking and a ton of snow. If you shovel off an area in front of your house, you may call it yours. Therefore, you have dibs on it.
Some folks even put objects in the parking space after they leave to let other drivers know they have dibs. Other drivers may also ignore those objects or move them and park there anyway. This can lead to wars over people who just need a place to park and people who worked hard clearing the snow from a parking space.
How do you feel about dibs?
The Bean - This is just a name we called The Cloud Gate. It's a giant bean in Millenium Park. It was only completed in 2006, but it's already a big tourist attraction.
Jeet? - This is another time-saving phrase. It means "did you eat?" It's just crammed into one word: Jeet?
Didja - This is a bit longer than the letter j in jeet, but it's the same idea: saying things faster. Didja is a shortening of the phrase "did you." Didja clear the snow in that parking space?
Usta - This is a shortening of the phrase "used to." They usta call it Comiskey Park, but now it's Guaranteed Rate Field.
Taste or "The Taste" - This is what we call our annual food festival, The Taste of Chicago, for short. This festival takes place every summer and gives patrons the opportunity to try different foods ubiquitous in Chicago and enjoy another feature: long lines.
Do you want to come with? - This is a phrase common in Chicago because of our urge to end sentences with prepositions:
Where are you at?
Where should I meet you at?
Are you coming with?
One reader noted that it comes from the influence of early German settlers to the Chicago area. "Do you want to come with," comes from the influence of the separable German verb: mitkommen.
Do you go to the movies or the show?
Kennedy, the Stevenson, the Eisenhower, the Edens, and the Dan Ryan - These are expressways. We don't use numbers to name the expressways in Chicago. When you listen to the traffic on the radio, you'd better be prepared to know your road by its name and not its number.
And yeah, they're expressways. Not highways.
The L - The L is just what we call the transit system. It's an elevated train, and we're one of the few cities in the country with this type of mass transportation.
The Loop - This is the downtown area of the city. The name comes from the fact that the L wraps around this area in a loop shape.
The frunchroom - Frunchroom is how Chicagoans say "front room" or parlor.
LSD - It's not a drug, it's just what we call "Lake Shore Drive" for short.
Where do the White Sox play?
Chicago Real Estate
Do you have a Chicago accent? Did I miss anything? Please share in the comments below!
Questions & Answers
© 2018 Melanie Palen