Chicago Accent 101

I'm recently back from visiting Chicago, a city near and dear to my heart. There is so much to love about the city -- Lake Michigan in the summer, the Midwestern hospitality, the city's love of cured meats ... but I digress. Perhaps the most endearing part of Chicago is being surrounded by the beauty of the Chicago accent. Well, not everyone may find the accent endearing -- I first found myself put off by the accent when a pilates instructor told me to "challenge myself by pulling up on the bar" -- a literal sound minefield for a Chicago speaker.  But now, years later I have come to hear the charm in the accent, and I hope that you will too. 

Chicago is to my mouth a tough accent to master. Essentially a melting pot of sounds from the city's huge Irish, Polish, Serbian, Croatian, Italian, Ukrainian, and more recently Mexican and Latino populations, Chicago is a sprawling city with very specific North, South, and West Side sounds. 

So in this sense, I'm not trying to detail a specific speaker, but rather a combination of sounds that I hear in most all contemporary speakers of the accent. Older residents or more stereotyped speakers may have other variations to their speech, particularly when it comes to turning a "th" into a "t" or "d". 

Interesting to note that I have many Chicago friends who have modified their accent to sound more General American. However, after a few rounds of drinks those hidden Chicago sounds do start re-appearing! 

So without further ado, the Chicago accent ...

1. Nasalization is Your Friend: If there is one thing to master when doing a Chicago accent, it's the accent's unique way of peppering nasalization throughout speech, particularly in words that end in "n" or "m" such as man, can, and, ham, etc. The real key to nailing a Chicago accent is finding the perfect balance of nasalization for the speaker. 

2. Embrace the R: particularly at the ends of words such as far, bar, car, care, dare, and share! In Chicago a little R never hurt anyone's tongue, so don't be afraid to really engage the back of the tongue. This is similar to the General American sound, but don't be afraid to be even more R-generous than when speaking in GenAm accent. Think "Hard R!"

3. Tighten Up Loose Diphthongs: such as the sound found in "find" and "time". Instead of allowing your tongue to glide through the vowel sound, I feel the back of my mouth constricting a bit over the sound in order to get the desired Chicago "I". 

4. Remember: "Flat is flat": Stepping off of the plane and into O'Hare airport, I was surrounded by Chicagoans looking for their "bags". Or "begs", rather. While they weren't completely saying "begs", there is certainly a flattening of the /ae/ sound in words such as have, had, flag, marry, etc. So flatten out that sound found in the word "flat". 

5. Let Your Lips Kiss the "O": as in the words go, no, & Chicago. This is definitely a more "pure" "o" sound than say, in a General American accent, but don't go too hard on this sound, lest you want to end up farther north in Minnesota, Michigan, or Wisconsin. For this sound, I let my lips pure slightly to form the sound. 

Bonus. "But Wait, How Do I Pronounce 'Chicago'?": Ah, my friend, this is harder than you think it would be. In contemporary, younger, educated speakers I typically hear "Chicago" pronounced with a middle vowel of "ah", as in FATHER, which is pretty much General American. Still, there are native speakers who may pronounce the city with some lip rounding over that "ah" turning it into a sort of "aw", although not to the extent of a New Yorker or Bostonian. Personally, I've heard this more in the Western suburbs (but that's just my experience). And finally, there are even native speakers who would pronounce the middle sound with a flattened "aa" (/a/). I found this more on the North Side, but again, only in my experience, as this is not a hard-and-fast rule. So there is no "right way" to pronounce the name of the city. My advice is to really research the character and make choices from there. 

Other Thoughts: For many of the sounds above, it's imperative to embrace the Midwestern friendliness and give a little smile! Lip spreading is key to mastering the Chicago accent, and can help you shape the sounds. 

And finally, perhaps the best Saturday Night Live Ode to Chicago (& yes, I've been to Ditka's): 

Day in the Life: Dialect Coaching for Film & Television

I realize that many of you might not know what a dialect or dialogue coach working in film & TV does, so I thought I would outline a (fairly) typical day from pickup to drop off.

8:00 Pickup: This sounds like a pretty cushy pick up time, and it is. Pickup times can often be 6AM or earlier. I’m picked up with the 3rd AD who lives nearby, and we feign small talk. We then promptly attempt to go back to sleep, as it’s a bit of a drive to the studio.

9:00-11:00 Read Thru: The entire production is currently prepping for February, which involves a reading with the actors, director, writers, and other key people involved in production. I sit there furiously taking notes, just trying to keep up. I use readings as a chance to re-familiarize myself with the scripts, and to build a plan of action for the month of February.

11:00-12:30 Prep Time: Read thrus always give me a lot to think about, so I make a beeline to the trailer to process my notes and to start researching.

I first review the February schedule so that I know which scenes will be filmed first. I also look through the scripts and research any words or names that I’m unsure about. I then create some prep work for the actors to prepare for February. I personally enjoy putting together all of the hardest words and sounds from the read thru into a few sentences that they can practice. This is because I’m evil.

Finally, I contact the 2nd AD about scheduling in longer prep sessions with individual actors so that we can prep every scene before filming.

12:30-13:30 Private sessions: I check in with the actors I’m working with, and we re-run the scenes that are going to be filmed today. We also may run future scenes, or discuss any questions or concerns they have ranging from their vocal health to the script.

13:30-14:30 Lunch Break: Obviously the highlight of the day.

14:30-20:00 On Set work: Normally I get on set around 8AM, but because of the read thru I don’t have to come on set until after lunch. I am handed headphones from the sound department, and I make my way towards a monitor to be able to listen, watch, and take notes.

I tend to go in after each take to tell the actor what is going well and which sounds they should change. It requires a good ear and fast thinking, as I only have a few moments between takes to work with the actor. On set I also work closely with the writers, the director, and the script supervisor so that the accent, the voice, and the words are all perfected.

20:00 Leave set: I am again shuttled home with the 3rd AD, but this time we talk for real about the day, about our separate jobs, and about the pluses and minuses of the business. Just like any other job.

21:00 Arrive home

Stationed in Berlin

It's been over a month! I am still in Berlin working on the upcoming Paramount/Epix series Berlin Station.  Also look out for my work in The Crown, premiering on Netflix this autumn. Until those come out, enjoy a little glimpse of movie magic: 

The Tricky Bits: American Accent 2.0

I'm back, folks! I've been on the set of Berlin Station for the past few weeks, whipping some actors into accent perfection. Which got me thinking: what are the tricks that trip up even seasoned American-accent pros?

Before reading, you might be interested in my original post on Hints to Mastering Any Accent, or my post on The General American Accent ... Taught by a Real, Live, General American. But now let's get to the trickiest of American sounds ...

  1. R: The Slippery Bastard: The American "R" is a notoriously difficult sound, particularly because it appears just so f***ing much. But besides the fact that you have to pronounce the R literally each time it appears, managing the strength and length of that R sound can be difficult for UK actors. The key to sounding fully American is finding the correct "R" balance, which is usually less harsh than UK actors want to make it. 
  2. Nasality: Friend or Foe?: For some endearing-slash-annoying reason, Brits tend to automatically place the American accent in the nose, giving an overtly caricature American sound. While we do tend to have more twang than the average Brit, keep the GenAm accent in the back of the mouth to balance the levels of nasality. 
  3. Getting the "PRICE" Right: [// sound:] Most literature will say that in theory, the vowel found in the word "price" is the same in both the RP and GenAm accent. In theory, that is correct. However, when we start to look at the placement of the American accent (see my old posts linked above) it is clear that the PRICE sound is slightly different.  Start the American sound in a round, open, back of the mouth, versus the RP PRICE, which starts slightly higher, in the middle of the mouth. This tiny difference can mean dramatic changes in an accent, particularly in a character who uses the word "I" a lot ....
  4. Vowel Lengths: The Long & Short of it: Fairly straight forward, but short vowel sounds tend to be held slightly longer in a GenAm accent. This is an easy fix, but can quickly be forgotten when the accent is transitioned into acting. The main short vowels that are held are the vowel sounds found in the words LOT, STRUT, and FOOT.
    "The puppy did not understand the cook book."

    Just to make life extra confusing, we Americans also tend to shorten vowels that are long in RP, particularly the vowel sounds found in FLEECE, CLOTH, and THOUGHT. 
    Keep the fraught bee out the cream!
  5. Trick words are not your friends: Lastly, be VERY careful of words that seem straight forward, but are anything but. Even one pronunciation slip up can send you quickly back over to the other side of the Atlantic. Would you know how to pronounce these words with a General American accent? Splinter, Risotto, Herb, Lieutenant, Depot, Aluminum, Privacy, Yoghurt, Pasta, Zebra ...

Accent Coach? Dialect Coach? What's the Difference?

I’m glad you asked! (Or probably didn’t ask, but I’m going to answer the question anyway!) I spent quite a few years in the USA referring to my job as a dialect coach, or someone who works with actors to acquire a specific dialect for a role. After some time in the UK, I now find myself telling people that I am an accent coach … so basically someone who works with actors to acquire a specific accent for a role. But isn’t that the same thing? Why the change in name? Is it even that different?! Why is this even a blog topic?!

According to British linguist David Crystal, the difference between an accent and a dialect is subtle, but certainly definable:

“Accent refers only to features of pronunciation, whereas dialect includes distinctive grammar and vocabulary. Some dialects (notably, standard English) are spoken with many accents.”David Crystal

Sticking with the hardline definition, that would mean that on U.S. soil my job entailed going through a process of teaching an accent, but also teaching new words and even grammar to an actor. And it would mean that on this side of the pond I only work with actors on the differences in sounds and pronunciation. 

While in theory this might explain the change in vocabulary, I would retort that theories don’t always become laws! On either side of the Atlantic, I am always doing accent work when I am coaching an actor to learn specific sounds of a region. However, that can veer very quickly into dialect coaching, as even within English there are various grammar and vocab that are regionally specific. 

So, am I a really a disguised dialect coach in a world of accent coaches? Have I cast off a label in order to fit in? Is this a soul-searching moment?

For me, the US dialect coach and the UK accent coach do exactly the same work (keeping in mind that every show is different). Perhaps we can chalk this up to a difference in vocabulary, with 'accent coaches' in the east, and 'dialect coaches' in the west.

So the next time you are looking for someone like me, don't get bogged down in all those labels! A professional coach will identify if you are looking for an accent or a dialect, and will work accordingly - regardless of what their label is on the tin. :)