Name a local celebrity with a Chicago accent. Dennis Franz, Bill Murray and anyone named Daley usually come to mind. They all sound Chicago, with those sharp a’s, elongated o’s and hard consonants.
But what about Kanye West, Common and LisaRaye? They speak a form of Chicagoese just as distinctively local: the Blaccent. The Blaccent is not as widely parodied, studied or celebrated as white ethnic speech, but it may at this point be more widely spoken here, now that the Classic Chicago Accent is going the way of steel mills and Old Style taverns.
Ashlee Nichols, who grew up in the Brainerd neighborhood on the Far South Side, first noticed her Blaccent when she left Chicago to go to college at Florida A&M University.
“People didn’t even understand what I was saying,” Nichols remembered. “I was saying ‘can’ like ‘cay-en.’”
Like most forms of African American Vernacular English, the Chicago Blaccent has its roots in the South. When Black Southerners moved up here during the Great Migration and settled on the South and West sides, they brought with them Southern speech patterns, such as dropping the “r”s from the middle and end of words, and addressing groups of people as “y’all.” For the most part, these features have persisted. In northern industrial cities, Black residents were isolated geographically by restrictive covenants, socially by taboos against intermarriage, and economically by relegation to the dirtiest, lowest-paying jobs, allowing them little contact with their white neighbors.
As a result, the Great Lakes region has traditionally had the most extreme differences between white and Black speech in the nation. Take a listen: Just this month, the Rev. Robbie Robinson preached a sermon at Wesley United Methodist Church on 95th Street, in which he praised “ouah Lohhd and Saviah, Jesus Christ.”
“When people do not have the opportunity to interact, they retain the version of speaking that mostly reflects that spoken by prior generations, writes Shawn Smith in “African American Ebonics: Discourse & Discursive Practice—A Chicago Case Study of Historical Oppression,” published in the Howard Journal of Communications. “For a Northern city like Chicago, this means that the presence of the Southern style of speaking is likely a function of social seclusion maintained generation after generation since the second wave of the Great Black Migration to the North in the 1940s.”
However, as segregation has broken down over the generations, and as the original Great Migrants have been replaced by native-born children and grandchildren, elements of Inland North speech have crept into the Black Chicago dialect, producing a distinctly local patois. When Nichols pronounces “can” as “cay-en,” she is participating in the Northern Cities Vowel Shift, a linguistic trend that began among white Midwesterners.
“Then there’s the word ‘sausage,’” Nichols said. “Here, you may say ‘sahhsage.’ The Blaccent is like that, but it has some Southern. Not quite like South Side Irish. There are some bits and pieces from that, but it’s also different.”
(One persistent difference: the Irish pronounce the city’s name “Chi-caw-go,” while Blacks say “Chi-cah-go.”)
In an “Accent Tag” Nichols posted to YouTube, she pronounced some words with Southern dropped “r”s and others with elongated Midwestern vowels. “Comfortable” and “tour” were “comf-table” and “tou-ah,” while “pecan” and “crayon” were “pih-CAHNN” and “cray-AHHN.”
Nichols is 35. I also asked Franklin Rhodes, a 65-year-old who grew up in the Robert Taylor Homes, to read the Accent Tag. He pronounced “pecan” as “PEE-cahn,” like his Alabama-born parents. Although the Taylor Homes were “six blocks” from Bridgeport, a stronghold of the Classic Chicago Accent, project dwellers only ventured across the Dan Ryan Expressway to attend White Sox games and shop at Community, a discount store at 47th and Halsted.
“We were allowed [in Bridgeport] during the day, but we were out of the neighborhood when the sun went down,” Rhodes recalled of his upbringing in the 1950s and ’60s. “If not, you’d get jumped.”
Natalie Y. Moore, author of the book The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation, says her brother speaks with “a strong Midwestern/Southern accent. It might be a little more nasally than a Southern accent. I had a New Yorker tell me I flatten out my vowels.”
Like Nichols, Moore also became more aware of her Chicago accent in college—in her case, Howard University in Washington, D.C., which draws students from all over the country.
“You definitely picked up on the regional accents,” Moore said. “Baltimore is different from D.C. You realize the diversity that is within Black America.”
The rapper and Chicago Blaccent speaker Common, who grew up on 87th Street, displays elements of both Southern and Midwestern speech in this interview. He pronounces his stage name “Cahhh-mon,” with a fronted “o” borrowed from the Classic Chicago Accent. But then he talks about performing in the Chicago movie “Bar-ba-shop.”
Walt Wolfram, a linguist at North Carolina State University, told WBEZ in 2013 that local Blaccents are the result of greater opportunities for Black Chicagoans and whites to interact. When Wolfram began studying AAVE in 1960s Detroit, the city’s Black speech was exclusively Southern.
“Today,” he said, “African-American speakers who live in New York sound New York. African-American speakers who have fairly extensive contact with white communities in Chicago and Philadelphia take on more of the regional qualities of those dialect areas.”
So the Blaccent can be thought of in two ways: as a sign of progress, since it developed in an era of decreasing segregation, and also a sign of accomodation to a dominant culture. Even though for many years Black residents were the most numerous ethnic group in Chicago, whites haven’t adopted any of their speech patterns. As Smith observed in his study, “[i]ndividuals that were born in communities where the rural Southern style of AAVE was used but that had access to [Standard American English] speech communities via educational facilities or by moving from the city altogether… also came to rely less on the rural Southern style of speech in everyday talk.”
Nichols, for example, feels that “my accent when I was a kid is probably stronger than it is now,” because she’s spent her life “code switching,” first as a student at the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences in Mount Greenwood, now as a mental health professional.
Whatever the cause, Black Chicagoans have developed an accent that’s every bit as Chicago as anything ever spoken by a Daley — and that belongs in any discussion of “the Chicago accent.”