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): 

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 ...
     

The General American Accent … Taught by a real, live, general American!

Ah, the GenAm accent, the bane of every UK actor’s career. There is nothing I cringe at more than the dulcet tones of my motherland being butchered in performance. (I know the feeling is mutual, UK friends!)

Let me fess up – General American is not a real accent. Each speaker of GenAm will have their own discreet regionalisms and differences to other speakers classified as GenAm. But generally speaking (see what I did there?) the term refers to an accent characterizing a middle class sound, which doesn’t contain any overt regionalisms other than being from the United States. The accent makes the listener go “I can tell you’re American, but I can’t tell exactly where you are from.”

Now, I realize that probably over half the people who peep at this blog are actually American (hello, compatriots!) and might think that this has nothing to do with them. Oh, how they are wrong. You see, perhaps you don’t need to learn a General American accent, but knowing the sounds and shapes of your home accent is the first step in learning a new accent. So listen up my actor friends, and let’s take a journey to middle America …

1.     See an R, Say an R. It sounds so simple, but in practice it can prove a nightmare. Every R written in the English language is pronounced in an American accent. However, the R is uniquely American in that it is produced by the back of the tongue squishing up in the back of the mouth, described by The Accent Kit’s Edda Sharpe as “slug tongue.” Practice your slug tongue:
The mirror was in the corner of the Paris court.

2.     Goodbye Ts, Hello Ds! Americans are notorious for finding language shortcuts, and Ts are no exception. When Ts appear in the middle of the world is it usually changed to a tapped sound, closely resembling a D. We also tend tap Ts at the end of words, causing them to appear cut off. Practice your tapping:
But you must give up butter to lose a little weight.

3.     Nasal? GenAm gets a bad rap for being a nasal sounding accent, and there is an element of nasal twang, addressed in Tip #4. Specifically, nasality appears in GenAm when the vowels before a nasal consonant (m, n, ng) tend to blend with that nasal consonant, causing a more nasalized sound. This can be done by lowering the soft palate a touch earlier to allow the vowel and consonant to party together. However, GenAm has less nasality than is often perceived, so careful you're not overdoing it.
His drinking friend from the bank wants commitment.

4.     Say cheese! While it is a gross stereotype that Americans tend to be constantly smiling, sometimes gross stereotypes can help when learning an accent. In this case smiling actually helps oral posture, or where the mouth tends to hang out when speaking the accent. Not only are the lips in GenAm more spread than in most UK accents, but the sounds tend to resonate (you’ll feel a buzz) around the soft palate and in the nose. Funny enough, smiling helps place the voice right in that nasal resonator.

Obviously these tips only skim the surface, but with a little practice you too can sound as generally American as I do.