American Regional Dialects - Da Chicago Dialect and the Northern Cities Vowel Shift Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

American Regional Dialects - Da Chicago Dialect and the Northern Cities Vowel Shift

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Introduction to American Dialects | Southern Drawl | Tawking the Tawk in Noo Yawk
New England's Wicked Good Accent | Philly Talk and Pittsburghese
The Midwestern 'Non-Accent' | Da Chicago Dialect and the Northern Cities Vowel Shift

Pronunciation is one of the easiest places for linguistic change to occur, because language, especially the English language, is not stable. Just as Shakespeare singlehandedly changed the language by adding all kinds of nifty new words and phrases, change in pronunciation is an ongoing process.

It has been remarked by American linguists that the city that speaks most like Chicago, Illinois is not nearby Green Bay, Wisconsin or neighbouring Gary, Indiana, but Rochester, New York on Lake Ontario, which is 600 miles to the east. The Great Lakes are a natural communication and transportation hub. Cities like Chicago easily come into contact with other industrial Great Lakes cities like Detroit, Gary, Rochester, Cleveland and Toledo. Probably for this reason there is a growing language change called a 'vowel shift' in Chicago and many cities in the inland north section of what is called the 'Midland' or Midwestern accent. In all, the Northern Cities Vowel Shift (NCVS), as it is called, is affecting 30 million Americans, or about 10% of US citizens. The change was first noticed in the 1960s, but has probably been underway for much longer.

Vowel Shift

The NCVS is most prominently changing speech in large, industrial cities in the 'Northern Inland' area of the country. Noticeably affected are Chicago, Cleveland, Milwaukee, St Louis1, Detroit, Buffalo, Rochester, Toledo, Syracuse, Flint, Gary and Rockford. The shift changes the way that vowel sounds are pronounced, so that some vowels sound like they are combined with other vowels - or diphthongised.

Charting the effect of the NCVS is like taking a phonological tour of the human mouth. Tongue placement has quite a bit to do with the vowel pronunciation changes. The tongue occupies different places in the mouth, moving over slightly with each shift into the space formerly occupied by a similar word. For that reason, the NCVS is sometimes called a chain shift. Here are some of the major changes caused by the NCVS2:

  • The short 'e' sound in 'red' replaces the 'u' in the word 'bud', so that it sounds like 'bed'.

  • The 'uh' sound in 'bud' replaces the 'aw' sound in 'jawed', so that it becomes 'jud'. The 'uh' sound also replaces the 'eh' sound in 'desk', so that it sounds like 'dusk'.

  • The 'ah' sound in 'crack' replaces the 'o' in 'block', so that 'block' sounds like 'black', or more accurately, 'blaahck'.

  • The 'o' sound in 'rod' replaces the 'a' sound in 'sad', so that it's more like 'sod'.

  • The 'ah' sound in 'sad' replaces the 'o' in 'socks', so it comes out as 'sacks' or 'sax'.

Da Chicago Way

Bill Swerski: Alright, we're talkin' here live from Ditka's in the heart of Chicago, Illinois, the city of the big shoulders and the home, of course, to a certain football team which has carved out a special place in the pantheon of professional football grace. Dat team which is known the world over as Da Bears.
All: Da-a-a... Bears!
Bill Swerski: Okay, by my watch, we're about tur-teen minutes from game time. As you're I'm sure aware Da Bears are getting ready for der big playoff against the New York Giants. Da Bears are seven point underdogs but don't count 'em out. Now let's go around the room for some predictions. Pat?
Pat Arnold: Tha Bears. Sixty-two ta tree.
Bill Swerski: Okay. Todd?
Todd O'Connor: Bears. 79, zip.
Bill Swerski: Oh really? You don't think that the Giants will score?
Todd O'Connor: No, I do not. Da Bears' defence is like a wall. You can't go troo 'em.

Many of the characteristics of the Northern Cities Vowel Shift are closely associated with Chicago, which is the biggest city in the region and one of the cities most strongly affected by the NCVS. In fact, many Americans might identify the characteristics of the NCVS as being a part of the Chicago accent, which is not, technically speaking, correct. However, the city is not without its own, unique quirks and speech characteristics.

Some Americans' conception of the Chicago dialect may be related to a recurring sketch on the television show Saturday Night Live called 'Bill Swerski's Superfans'. In it, Mike Myers, Chris Farley, John Goodman, George Wendt and others would sit around and discuss Chicago sports teams in heavily exaggerated Chicago accents. Chicago's football team, the Bears, became 'Da Bears'. Chicago's basketball team, the Bulls, became 'Da Bulls'. Chicago's two baseball teams, the Cubs and the White Sox became 'Da Cubs' and 'Da Sax'.

In fact, the much parodied Chicago way of substituting a 'th' sound with a 'd' sound is a bit overdone by the 'Superfans', but it's still somewhat accurate. The Chicago 'th' sound which comes at the beginning of the word 'the' is a bit harder and closer to a 'd', but is distinguishable from a 'd'. It comes from a higher placement of the tongue in the mouth (against the roof of the mouth rather than against the teeth) while making the 'th' sound. While it isn't quite a full 'd' sound, it is a hard 't' sound in place of 'th'.

1St Louis, Missouri is not located in the Great Lakes region, so it remains something of an anomaly and a mystery.2People in the linguistic areas affected by the Northern Cities Vowel Shift may not be as affected as the following examples suggest. These examples explain the trend of where the NCVS is taking the dialect of the Inland North, rather than how it currently stands.

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