Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Theresa, this is about our Chicago-accented relations

Theresa and I both have generations of family history in Chicago, and I expect we both are quite familiar with the "youse guys" Chicago accent. Probably everyone is familiar with a bit of it because of all those SNL skits about the super "Da Bears" fans.

I've always so much associated this with Chicago area, I was quite surprised to hear a very similar accent in Cleveland and Buffalo. It's a Great Lakes accent, really, though I don't think those on the north side of the lakes (Canadians) have much of the accent. To some extent, it crosses the class barrier (that is, a banker might sound that way, as well as a steelworker), but not the race barrier (African-Americans and Hispanics, even those with generations in the region, tend not to have those distinctive vowels). The further you get from the Great Lakes cities, the less you'll hear it. I live 100 miles south of Lake Michigan, and no one around here sounds like that-- we Hoosiers are more likely to flatten out vowels than shift them.

Anyway, here's an article about the Northern Cities Shift ("NCS") or Great Lakes accent which points out the funniest aspect (apart from "youse," which I can tell you from my own experience is actually the possessive pronoun used by the purest speakers) is: If news of this radical linguistic shift hasn’t made it to you yet, you are not alone. Even people who speak this way remain mostly unaware of it. Dennis Preston, a professor of perceptual linguistics at Oklahoma State University—he doesn’t merely study how people speak, he studies how people perceive both their own speech and the speech of others—discovered something peculiar about NCS speakers when he was teaching at Michigan State University. “They don’t perceive their dialect at all,” he says. “The awareness of the NCS in NCS territory is zero.”

Point is, while we tend to mourn the loss of American dialects due to mobility and TV, this accent is actually become MORE distinctive. Interesting!



James Pray said...

It might be worth noting that this accent doesn't really extend north of the Michigan border. The Lower Peninsula also has a distinct accent from the Upper's, which is that Fargo-type Canadianesque thing (like in Wisconsin/Minnesota).

Alicia said...

I think the north parts of the lakes (which are mostly in Canada, except of course for the UP) seem to have a much more Canadian sound. Minnesotans (the north of the state) sound Canadian to me, especially with the "ou" sounds.
In the US, accents seem very "vowel" concentrated. In the UK, consonants come more into play, especially in the dropping of them.

I remember being in "swamp country" (southeast Virginia) and thinking the local dialect sounded like a foreign language (and I grew up in SW Virginia-- those mountains sure blocked the swamp accent from migrating). Then last year I was in the Gullah region of South Carolina (around Charleston), and heard much the same accent. I wonder how much geography matters in creating these sounds, or at least capturing them.

I hate to think we might lose some of these most distinctive dialects!

Natalie said...

I live in west Michigan and, indeed, the NCS accent is going strong here! I'm originally Canadian, so coming from the land of exaggerated round vowels to exaggerated flat vowels has been interesting. My husband is from here, but due to some combination of growing up trying to sing like the Beatles and his classical choir training, he and doesn't have the NCS. I confess that we make fun of it. A lot.

Edittorrent said...

Natalie, we make fun of it, too! Even the people who speak it also mock it. I think if you're in or near the fruit belt, there's so much commingling with Chicago that the accent transfers. We have a cottage up there, and it sounds like the south side.


Edittorrent said...

I was just listening to an old cassette that my mom had from a conversation with her aunt about family history. My mother (whose own mother would not let her talk with "the accent" :) almost giggles when her aunt refers to that branch of the family as "youse guys." Pure Chicago!