The Chicago Accent, Slang, and Culture
The Chicago Accent Deconstructed
"th" becomes "d"
this, that, there, "the Bears"
dis, dat, dare, "da Bears"
short "o" becomes short "a"
hot dog, pop, mom
haht dahg, pahp, mahm
short "u" becomes "aww"
short "a" becomes "ay-i"
"ctu" becomes "ch"
double "tt" becomes double "dd"
"th" becomes "t" (South Side)
Breaking It Down
The table above summarizes some the accent's key aspects. Now let's take a closer look.
Da Bears: The Letter "D"
One of the most well-known bits of Chicago-speak revolves around the "d" sound. The "th" sound found in words like "this," "that," and "there" turns into a soft "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 Swerski's Super Fans," it's definitely there.
There's nothing more "Chicago" than "da Bears" (and that's exactly how they're called). If you refer to the football team by saying "the Bears," you must not hail from this town!
Bill Swerski's Super Fans: "Da Bears"
Vowel Shift: "A," "O," and "U"
Something funny happens to short vowels in Chicago; they undergo a transformation that linguists call a "vowel shift."
This sound of the short "a," as in the word "hat," gets emphasized and shortened so that it sounds closer to "hay-it."
The short "o" of "hot dog" is pronounced with a flat, nasal tone that makes it sound more like "haht dahg." Speaking of meat, "sausage" is pronounced "sahh-sage."
And the short "u," as in the word "hut," has a more "aww" sound. This sound is reminiscent of the way New Jerseyans pronounce coffee ("cawfee"), but not quite as strong. In Chicago, words like "but" and "cut" sound a bit more like "bought" and "caught."
Saving Time With "Ch"
Instead of saying that you're "looking at a picture," you'll want to say you're "lookin' atta' pitcher." It's a lot about saving time. Cut out the "ctu" and replace it with a "ch" sound, and you'll be able to say a lot more in a shorter amount of time (like a real Chicagoan).
South Side Speciality: No "Th"
For Chicagoans on the South Side, there’s no "th" sound. It's just a "t." For example, "one, two, tree, four."
Linguists classify the Chicago accent as one of several types of Inland Northern English, also known as the Inland North Dialect or the Great Lakes Dialect. This dialect appears across the U.S. Great Lakes region, which extends from Central New York westward through parts of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Iowa.
Great Debate: How to Pronounce "Chicago"?
Depending on whether you're from the North Side or South Side—or, if you want to get technical, the "nort side" or the "sout side"—you're likely to pronounce the name of our fair city differently.
- Northsiders: "Chi-CAW-go"
- Southsiders: "Chi-CAH-go"
Regardless of how we pronounce it, we all agree that this is the best city on earth!
The Chicago Accent, Slang, and Culture
Chicago Slang and Culture
In addition to the accent, there are some slang terms, city nicknames, and cultural traditions that are unique to Chicago. Let's take a look.
Nicknames: Windy City and Second City
You may already be familiar with Chicago's two most famous nicknames—but did you ever stop to consider the origins of these monikers?
Sometimes when the weather gets bad, folks will say, "Well, it's the windy city, after all." Saying this, however, will immediately mark you 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. Another frequently floated theory is that the term was coined as a reference to the city's "full of hot air" politicians.
Chicago is sometimes referred to as the Second City. The name comes from the city having been rebuilt after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Also, at one time, Chicago was the second largest city in the United States, after New York City.
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 has found a lot of its talent. Many comedians got their start here: Tina Fey, John Belushi, Jim Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, Steve Carell, Amy Poehler, Alan Alda, Chris Farley, Steven Colbert, Bill Murray... I could go on!
Why is Chicago called the Second City?
Chicago Slang and Unique Pronunciations
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, don't forget that it's all topped with celery salt. But whatever you do, don't ask for ketchup! If you want ketchup with your hot dog, you're definitely not from around here.
Couple, two, three: This unique phrase describes "a few." If you ask your friends how many beers they've already had, you might hear "A cuppa, two, tree."
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 the parking spot 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 ignore those objects—or move them—and park there anyway. This can lead to wars between people who just need a place to park versus those people who worked hard to clear the snow from a parking space.
How do you feel about dibs?
Didja: A time-saving phrase, "didja" is the shortened form of "did you." For example, "Didja clear the snow in that parking space?"
Do You (or Didja) Wanna Come With?: Chicagoans like to end some of our questions with prepositions:
- "Where'ya at?"
- "Where should I meetcha at?"
- "Are'ya comin' 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.
Er What: This is a popular appendage to the end of a sentence. "Are we goin' to the show, er what?"
Frunchroom: This is how Chicagoans refer to the living room or parlor. Linguists believe it may have its origins in the term "front room."
Gaping: This is what we call rubbernecking; i.e., what drivers do when they inch past a traffic accident. When lots of folks are gaping, this will lead to a "gaper's delay" or a "gaper's block."
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 my grandmother's generation, but more and more I hear Chicago folks calling it going to the show.
Goes and Says: Used when describing conversations. "And then he goes..." or "And then I says to him, I says..." (In the second example, by the way, "says" sounds more like "sez.")
Graj: This is where you park your car if you're lucky enough to have one. It's not pronounced "ga-rage." That's just way too many syllables for a fast-talking Chicagoan.
Grachki: Related to the above, this is a garage key.
Gym shoes: What we call athletic shoes, sneakers, or trainers.
Hunnert: How we say "hundred."
Jeet?: This is another time-saving phrase, meaning "did you eat?" It's just crammed into one word: "Jeet?" (By the way, the answer might be, "No, jew?")
Jewlery: I can't say I've ever heard someone say the full-on "jewel-ry." It's almost hard to say. Here, it's often pronounced "jew-lery."
The Jokes: Nope, it's not a live comedy show; it's the comics in the newspaper.
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), and it's 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."
Pop: As with other Midwestern states, folks in Illinois drink pop—not soda. Soda is for laundry. And that's pronounced "pahp," by the way.
Prairie: A vacant lot, especially a long-abandoned one with weeds to prove it.
Usta: This is a shortening of the phrase "used to." "They usta call it Comiskey Park, but now it's Guaranteed Rate Field."
Washroom: Don't ask for the restroom or the bathroom—and definitely don't ask for the powder room! In this town, it's the washroom.
Youse: The plural form of "you," as in "where are all youse goin'?" Also frequently paired with "guys," as in "what do youse guys wanna do?"
Do you go to the movies or the show?
Chicago Landmarks, Roads, and Transit
The Bean: This is what we call "The Cloud Gate," a sculpture created by artist Anish Kapoor and installed in 2006 in Millennium Park. Although it's a fairly recent addition to Chicago's landscape, it's already a big tourist attraction.
The Corn Cobs: How we refer to the Marina City buildings. Fun fact: When these twin towers were built in 1964, they were the tallest residential structures in the world.
The Kennedy, the Stevenson, the Eisenhower, the Edens, and the Dan Ryan: These are expressways. In this city, we don't use numbers to name the expressways. When you listen to the traffic report on the radio, you'd better be prepared to know your roads by their names and not their numbers. 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.
LSD: It's not a drug, it's just what we call Lake Shore Drive for short.
Taste or "The Taste": This is what we call our annual food festival, The Taste of Chicago. This festival takes place every summer and gives patrons the opportunity to enjoy favorite local foods—and long lines.
And the White Sox Play... Where?
Depending on who you ask, Chicagoans might give you different answers for the name of the stadium where the White Sox play. The original stadium was built in 1910 and named Comiskey Park after the team's founding owner, Charles Comiskey.
In 1991, a new stadium was built directly across the street, and the old stadium was demolished. The new stadium was also called Comiskey Park—but in 2003 it was rebranded U.S. Cellular Field (after the company paid a cool $68 million for naming rights). In 2016, yet a new name was announced: Guaranteed Rate Field. This newest naming rights deal apparently extends until 2029, so keep your eyes peeled for yet another name change down the road.
Some Chicagoans feel loyal to the name they grew up with, so you can see where this might lead to some confusion... or spirited debate!
Where do the White Sox play?
Invented in Chicago
Among the many, many inventions and innovations that are connected to Chicago, here's just a small sample:
- Cell phone (1973)
- Deep dish pizza (1943)
- Hostess Twinkies (1930)
- Car radio (1930)
- Ferris wheel (1893)
- Open heart surgery (1893)
- Skyscrapers (1885)
- Vacuum cleaner (1868)
Celebrities From Chicago
Chicago Slang With Tiffany Haddish
Think You Know Your Chicago Lingo?
- Quiz: Only 1 in 50 Chicago Locals Can Ace This Slang Challenge. Can You? - Women.com
Slang quiz about Chicago. How well do you know the Windy City?
My Connection to Chicago
I grew up just outside of Chicago in New Buffalo, Michigan, which is part of an area known as "the region." I had always thought I had a hint of Chicago in my accent—but I later realized that my accent is much more squarely Michiganian. The Chicago accent is a special animal all its own.
Linguists classify both the Chicago and Michigan accents as "Inland North American." Both accents are very nasally. After writing about the Michigan accent in another article, "The Midwest Accent & Slang Terms," I decided that an article about the Chicago accent was long overdue.
Add Your Thoughts!
Do you have a Chicago accent? Did I miss anything? Please share your thoughts and ideas in the comments below!
Sources and Interesting Reads
Jones, Claudette. "Seven Chicago Inventions and Innovations That Changed America and the World." Owlcation. Accessed February 6, 2019.
Kaufman, Elyssa. "50 Celebrities You Might Not Know Were From the Chicago Area." NBC Chicago, June 29, 2017. Accessed February 6, 2019.
McClelland, Edward. "The Disappearing Chicago Accent Is Layered With Local History." Chicago Reader. Accessed February 6, 2019.
McClelland, Edward. "23 Phrases You’ll Only Hear in Chicago." Chicago Magazine, August 13, 2018. Accessed February 6, 2019.
Mifsud, Rob. "Vowel Movement: How Americans Near the Great Lakes Are Radically Changing the Sound of English." Slate, August 22, 2012. Accessed February 6, 2019.
Moser, Whet. "Where the Chicago Accent Comes From and How Politics Is Changing It." Chicago Magazine, March 29, 2012. Accessed February 6, 2019.
"Top Chicago Innovations." Chicago Tribune, August 8, 2014. Accessed February 6, 2019.
© 2018 Melanie Palen