How to Speak the Language of Chicago

Edward McClelland, author of “How To Speak Midwestern,” breaks down how we speak and phrases unique to Chicago

By The Editors
May 13, 2017 9:00 am

You’ve got your brash New Yorkers. Drawl-heavy Southerners. Chilled-out Californians. They all have distinctive accents.

But when it comes to speech, we Midwesterners are as ordinary as they come, right?

Not quite.

As he details in his fascinating new book, How To Speak Midwestern, Edward McClelland argues that the Midwest is in fact one of the most fascinating and consequential regions when it comes to how and why we speak the way we do. “I’ve been writing about and arguing for a Midwest identity for a while now,” McClelland said when we rung him up on a recent afternoon to go deep on what he calls the “classic Chicago accent.”

In addition to history of speech patterns for the different regions of the Midwest, McClelland’s book is notable for its glossary of words, phrases, terminology and slang unique to respective Midwest states. Naturally then we had him give us the inside scoop on some of his favorite Chicago-specific words, from Dibs to Merch. After reading his book, trust us: you’ll be spending a lot more time thinking about how you speak.

InsideHook: What compelled you to write a book on Midwestern speech and language?

Edward McClelland: It started off as an article about the Northern Cities vowel shift for Belt Magazine and that was something I’d been aware of — not the vowel shift but the results of it — since I was in college at the University of Michigan. I had an anecdote in the book about asking someone from New Jersey if she noticed anything about the way Michiganders talk and she said, “Well, you say saynd and cayn.” So I wanted to explore that and I found this was the biggest change in English vowel pronunciation in a thousand years. The Midwest sometimes gets written off as a generic part of the country or the bland middle. So I wanted to show that there was as much interesting speech and colorful speech in the Midwest as there was in any other part of the country and as much linguistic variety.

That makes sense: it often seems Midwesterners lack as clear-cut an identity as the coasts or the South. But in your book you make clear that within the Midwest there are so many different variations on speech.

I feel like I’ve spent my whole career doing that. Some of the words I collected for the book goes all the way back to when I wrote a book called “The Third Coast” which was about traveling around all five Great Lakes and arguing for a regional identity. That was sort of a Northern Pride book. And then I wrote a book called “Nothing But Blue Skies” about the Rust Belt. So it grew out of other things I’ve written and other things I’ve done. Actually some of the words I put in there I first collected in 1998. The Chicago Reader used to do an annual issue called “These Parts” and it was for that issue. So I did glossaries for Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana and downstate Illinois.

So I’d love to talk to you specifically about Chicago and the way its residents speak to one another. If you ask most native Chicagoans like me they’ll say they don’t have an accent. But you argue otherwise.

Can I ask you a question? Where were you raised?

In a suburb called Arlington Heights.

OK. Because I don’t hear the classic Chicago accent in your voice.

No but I absolutely knew people who had it. One of the things I find most fascinating about the classic Chicago accent, as you call it, is how class and vocation play a major role.

But I think that’s true everywhere. The white working class generally has the accent that you associate with a particular region. But Chicago has changed so much in the last 30 or 40 years. It used to be such an industrial city so there are just fewer people who fit that description. They’re a smaller portion of the population. Probably in the city of Chicago maybe 15 percent of people speak in what you call the classic Chicago accent. The African Americans don’t do it and a lot of the North Siders don’t do it and the people who are moving to the city, the immigrants aren’t really picking it up. Generally it’s somebody who has roots in Chicago for several generations and has lived in the city their entire life. Even when I went to Beverly, I went down there earlier this fall and watched a Bears game in a tavern called Wrong’s Tap and all the older guys there had that classic accent. The score of the game is 13-10 so what’s the square for that quarter? The guy said “Ciro and Tree.” But then I took the train back downtown and I talked to a guy and he was in his Thirties and he was a firefighter from Mount Greenwood. And you’d expect someone like that to have a classic Chicago accent but he didn’t. He said “My mom kind of beat it out of me.” It’s probably collected some kind of a stigma.

There’s no doubt, whether just or not, it’s looked at as more intellectual to lack a regional accent of any sort.

I think it depends on your occupation. I mean, if you’re a cop it might help. It might make you sound like a tough guy. But if you’re a doctor maybe someone might go “Well, how educated is this person?” Tradesmen, the classic Chicago accent is very common with. People who don’t have to have a lot of contact with people outside the area. I think when Chicago was more of an industrial city certainly the accent was more prevalent. I go into that in the book where you didn’t really need to leave your neighborhood to to get a good job then so why learn to moderate your accent? And there have been so many new influences in the city, so many people moving in from outside.

Yes, for young professionals in the Midwest Chicago has become a go-to place to move after college.

And because of that you might actually hear the Chicago accent more in some suburbs than the city. You certainly hear it in some of the neighborhoods on the Northwest Side and the Southwest side. I was listening to some aldermen and there’s maybe five alderman who have what you call a classic Chicago accent and they’re all from those areas. Areas like Melrose Park, Norwood Park, Mount Greenwood, Beverly, Bridgeport.  And then suburbs too. I knew a guy from Burbank who had a super-strong accent.

Is something being lost with these regional accents getting less widespread? There is something to be said about having a distinguishable calling card so to speak about where someone is from.

One thing I learned from researching this is that accents are always changing. Speech is always changing. Every generation has its own sound just like every generation has its own music and slang. Fixating on a particular way of speech and saying “This is integral to our identity” is bound to slip away. Younger people are always going to talk differently than an older generation. What you call the classic Chicago accent was really strongest in the World War II and Baby Boomer generation.

So let’s go over some of the glossary of Chicago phrases and terms you mentioned in the book. I’d love to find out some of your favorites or ones you feel are particularly native to Chicago.

Clout (which McClelland defines in the book as, “political influence used to evade rules that must be followed by the well-connected”), that’s certainly one. I think it’s misused. It’s used elsewhere but I think in Chicago it’s really understand to mean not just having influence but being able to get around the rules. And it’s also a noun. Although I don’t think it’s probably as common as in the days when the machine was strong.

Any others?

There’s another that my editors had me take out because they thought it was too crude. Have you heard of The Belmont Transfer?

I have not.

I’ll just tell where it comes from and you’ll be able to figure it out. It’s one of only two stops on the Chicago El where riders can switch from the Red Line to the Brown Line.

I can see why your editors didn’t want that included.

[Laughs] Yah. We wanted to make it family-friendly. Another one would be frunchroom (the front room of a bungalow or flat, overlooking the street). I think that’s sort of a legacy phrase that people now only use ironically. Some others I like are Gaper’s Block (a traffic jam, due to motorists rubbernecking at an accident) or Dibs (shoveling out a parking space on your block after a bad snowstorm by blocking it with lawn chairs, crates, sawhorses or other cast-off possessions). Those are both pretty unusual to Chicago. I tried to include some African-American phrases too like Merch (to offer proof) and Out South (The South Side or South suburbs). Trixie (a usually blonde-haired young woman living in Chicago’s affluent Lincoln Park neighborhood), that’s a Chicago phrase.

And how did you go about narrowing down this list of terms? Was it from your own experience speaking to people in the area?

I lived downstate in Decatur before moving to Chicago so I’d say for Illinois they were almost all from my own experience. But for the other states I traveled there. I actually did a lot of research in Big 10 bars in Chicago. I got a lot there. And just from research and traveling around the region over the years I’ve picked a lot of these things up.

Sounds like a fun way to do research.

I really tried to make it a book not just about language or linguistics but about culture as well. I tried to make linguistics fun.