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): 

What's in My Mouth?: Vowels 101

I've recently been doing quite a bit of American accent coaching, and it has come to my attention that we as actors are vastly unprepared when it comes to the simple question: what's going on in my mouth?

"Bah humbug!" You say. "Actors don't need to know about the aryepiglottic folds! It's all about being in the moment!" To which I say, fair enough. I don't want you to start thinking about your oral twang mid-scene. But as it is better to be informed rather than ignorant, I would argue that it's better to be so versed in the workings of your own mouth that you don't need to think about it, as opposed to realizing mid-scene that you have no idea what you are doing.

But what is this even good for you ask? For one: accents. In an accent you will be changing, sometimes ever so slightly, what your tongue, jaw, lips, soft palate, etc. are doing. Knowing your way around your mouth is also needed for character voicing, when creating a voice for a character that is distinct but also consistent. I would argue you can only do this continually by knowing what is happening in your mouth.

To start: a bit of science: vowel sounds are all created in the same way, as the vocal folds in your larynx vibrate creating sound waves. The vibration then passes through your oral cavity (known at the mouth and throat in normal-person speak) which changes shape based on the sound. It is through the position of the tongue, lips, soft palate, and jaw that changes the vowel sound.

1.     To start, spread your lips into a smile, and push your tongue high and forward. Now see what sound comes out when you out some voice through it. Chances are you will get an 'eee' sound. This is the most forward and high vowel sound we can make.

2.     Keeping your tongue forward, move it down a fraction of an inch, and you arrive at 'ey'. I think of this as the Italian exclamation "AY!"

3.     Keeping moving the tongue down but staying forward and you land on a nice, solid 'eh' sound. This sounds vaguely English, such as in the word DRESS.

4.     Now going as far down as you can with the tongue at the front of the mouth, you will find yourself square on the sound 'aeh' as in the word TRAP.

5.     Let's start to move the tongue back in the mouth, but keeping it low. A few centimeters back from the previous sound you will find yourself producing a short 'ah'. This sound comes in handy when doing Northern English (UK) accents, such as in the word BATH.

6.     Going as far back and down as you can with the tongue, you'll find yourself in new territory, producing the sound 'ahhh'. This is the sound found in the standard British BATH. For Americans, this sound is found in the word FATHER.

7.     Now let's move the tongue up again, but keeping it in the back of the mouth. Round your lips over this sound, and out pops a nice round 'awww' or 'or' sound.

Note: Americans! This sound occurs a lot in UK accents, popping up in words such SHAW, LAW, NORTH & FORCE. In General American speech it shows its face in 'or' sounds, if you pretend there is no 'r' pronounced.

8.     Moving the tongue up, you'll pass quickly over a very pure 'ooh' sound. You know the one.

9.     Finally, bringing the tongue to the top we reach our highest back vowel 'ew', as in 'u'.

Now relax everything and reward yourself with the most lazy sound you can make: 'uh'. Voila, you've found your schwa, or most neutral vowel.

There are a few more vowels that fall in the middle, but you now know where the vowel homes are in your mouth. Now that you've paid them a visit, the quicker they will open their door to you in the future.

Happy vowel exploring!

This post draws heavily on the work of Jan Haydn-Rowles & Edda Sharpe of "How to do Accents," and of Dudley Knight's Knight-Thompson Speechwork