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! 

 

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.

 

What to Expect When You’re Expecting (A Voiceover Demo Reel)

I can in no way claim to be an expert in the world of voiceover (for that, check out voice-over extraordinaire Nicola Redman). However, I have now spent some time in a studio recording the dulcet tones of my decidedly American accent, and learned more about my own voice in a few hours than I probably did in an entire year getting my masters in voice. Yes, I just wrote that. In any case, a few things you should know before going in and making a demo reel:

1.     Energy! I realize this sounds fairly obvious, but in a voice-over reel you are not seen. All of the normal physical habits you use daily to enhance what you are saying are not part of the audio file, so you must rely only on your voice to do the job. Because of this, vocal energy needs to be at a place that just isn’t used in real life. At times you may feel over the top, but often that is the recording that will sound the most interesting. Experiment to find the sweet spot for your voice.

2.     All ears on you. Perhaps you already know who will be in the studio with you as you record, but be prepared to face more people in the room than you perhaps initially expected. There may be a director, producer, sound engineer and more  all working to create the best reel for you. Besides having a small audience, know that the team will all have their own set of directions to give! Take direction with grace and humility, it’s usually not personal.

3.     Silence. To do your takes you will go into a sound proof booth and be outfitted with headphones so you can be in contact with the team outside of the booth. However, between takes those outside the booth may be discussing things, leaving you in the booth to sit with your own thoughts for a few minutes. And let me tell you, sound deprivation is a known torture device. Be prepared to sit with the silence, or find distraction by re-reading the text before you do another take. Just know they haven’t forgotten about you … as eerie the silence may be.

4.     Chugging water like there’s no tomorrow. When was the last time you spoke for multiple hours straight, out loud, at full vocal energy, with limited breaks? Exactly. Bring your own water and drink it down between takes. The combination of a dehydrated & overused voice is deadly, especially if you are using your voice in a professional context.

5.     Exploration! Making a demo reel can be fun if you allow it to be, and a lot of that comes from exploration of your voice. You will have quite a few takes of each text, so experiment and see what works best. You might just find out something about your own voice that you never knew … 

Where to find more information on the world of voice-over:
The VoiceOver Network UK
Gary Terzza Voice-Over Blog
Voices.com Blog