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): 

Warm Up Your Voice: Shower Time

Fitting in a voice warm up every day can seem incredibly time consuming, but it can be as easy as 10 minutes in the shower. Try it each time you shower for a week (if only for the free entertainment), and I promise you won't go back to your old silent showers anytime soon!

1.       Release: You're already in the shower, so luckily you are already in prime release mode. However, take a minute to check in to every part of your body, starting at your toes and working up to the top of your head. Is there any tension you can let go of to allow yourself to become more grounded? 

2.       Breath: Tune into your breathing, making sure you aren't forcing anything to happen. Once you feel your breath is calm, try counting to 10 using only one breath. Then gradually increase the amount by groups of 5, going from 10 to 15 to eventually 30! See how far you can go, and over time you'll find your ability increasing. 

3.       Voice: If you don't already sing in the shower, I can tell you that you are doing something wrong! Give your voice an easy start on a humming, be it a song you already know or something you make up. See if you can experiment with higher or lower notes than you are used to, stopping if anything feels pushed. Transition the traditional hum into making sound on an 'N' or and 'NG,' as in 'sing.'

4.       Resonance: Using a similar counting exercise as before, try counting to 10, imaging the sound coming out only from your chest. Then try counting to 10, imaging the sound coming out only from your mouth, and lastly coming out only from behind your eyes. Finally, try counting to 10 imagining the sound coming from the whole of your body. 

5.       Articulation: Wake up your muscles with a nice bout of gurning, or making strange faces.  Dudley Knight of Knight-Thompson Speechwork decribes gurning as "a wonderful exercise program for your face," and you'll be surprised at the positions you can get yourself into! Once those muscles have been properly stretched, finish it all off with some good old-fashioned tongue twisters. 

Peggy Babcock (10 times fast)
Seth at Sainsbury's sells thick socks. 
You know New York, you need New York, you know you need unique New York

Happy warming up! 

 

Voice and Posture

I was recently speaking to Guy Michaels and Esther Wane (two excellent folks in the world of voiceover, go check them out), when the topic of posture and voice came up. Now, as a voice person I know how easy it is to get obsessed with the minute details of the larynx and the like … so why of all things do I want to talk about posture?

Because voice over artists tend to have bad posture!

Ok, now that’s out in the open, let’s talk about why.
Often when we speak in real life our bodies tend to want to come towards the person we are speaking to, leading to the head and neck poking out and the shoulders rounding. However, in real life, the person we are speaking to responds to what we are saying, and our bodies register that they are listening to us. A studio with a microphone is an entirely different situation.  In the studio there is only you and the microphone. And it is quite easy to start poking the head and neck forward and rounding the shoulders in order to bring yourself (intentionally or unintentionally) closer to the microphone. This is lovingly described by Yvonne Morley as the ski jumper position. Don’t be a ski jumper in the studio!

Why is this not desired?
Because use affects function! If the head and neck are dropped too far forward, the muscles in the head and neck constrict to help hold the head up, and the area around the larynx is compromised. If the shoulders start rounding that can affect breathing, which powers the voice. Now imagine forcing your body to work in that position for many hours without rest. I would call it body abuse.

How can I develop better posture & alignment?

1.     Sit or stand in front of your microphone and start registering the relationship between your body and the room. What is the difference in space between the top of your head and the ceiling? Between your right shoulder and the right wall? Left shoulder and left wall? Your feet to the ground? See what you notice, and adjust if something feels off.

2.     Step your feet in closer to the microphone if you start to feel yourself becoming a ski jumper. There is absolutely no reason to stand so far away.

3.     Lay down on the floor for a few minutes, allowing yourself to release into the ground. Make a mental note of the feeling of your back on the ground. When standing in front of the microphone, keep imagining that sensation on your back, allowing yourself to come into your back body.

4.     Try placing your feet one foot forward, one foot back in order not to get stuck in one position and to help stabilize your body over a wider base.

As you develop habits of good posture and alignment, the voice will become freer and more accessible, leading to some damn good studio sessions. I can guarantee it.

For more information:
STAT: The Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique
The VoiceOver Network UK