Back in August, a video of a botanist rescuing an abandoned coyote pup went viral. But some viewers were even more taken with his heavy Chicago accent than with his altruism. (“I’m not gonna f— with ya. Don’t worry abaht it. You’re not dat tough. Eyyy!”)
It turns out the botanist, Joey Santore, an Italian American from La Grange, was actually laying it on a little thick.
“I grew up knowing guys like that,” Santore told Chicago magazine. “When I was a kid, a lot of my friends had dads like that.”
Well, there are still folks like that around — folks who talk with the accent Santore was mimicking. A lot of them are Italian American. Some of them are from La Grange, or nearby.
Before we introduce you to our candidates for the Chicago Accent Hall of Fame, here are a few things to know. The so-called “classic Chicago accent” — made famous by the Superfans, including real-life Midwesterners George Wendt and Chris Farley — is a Chicago accent, but it’s obviously not the only Chicago accent. Chicago’s extreme racial and economic segregation has also resulted in extreme dialect segregation, making the "classic Chicago accent" almost exclusively a white, working-class phenomenon. Likely just 10 to 15 percent of the city’s residents speak with some version of it, most of whom were born during the baby boom or before.
Today, you'll hear the accent most often in neighborhoods heavily populated with city workers who have lived in Chicago for generations, like Bridgeport, Beverly, Mount Greenwood, and Edison Park.
Alderman Anthony Napolitano
Not only is Anthony Napolitano an alderman from the Northwest Side, he’s an Italian and a firefighter. Here he is talking to cops and firefighters, and speaking their language: “A handful of candidates here that get elected, that can change the way things are done in the city of Chicago. If you’re not on board with dat, I don’t know.”
Napolitano's tendency to replace “th” with “d” — or “stops” — is a product of the fact that most European languages do not contain the “th” sound, known as the interdental fricative. Thus, “dese," "dem," and "dose” became common pronunciations in immigrant communities.
Alderman Nick Sposato
Like Napolitano, Sposato is an Italian American ex-firefighter from the Northwest Side. Of course he has an accent, and it’s glorious. In this clip, he greets a crowd by telling them, “I’d like to thank youse all for coming,” throws in a “dat” for “that,” and tells them that “my faaather was in and out of jaaabs.” (That elongated, fronted “o” sound is a feature of the Northern Cities Vowel Shift, a feature of speech in Great Lakes cities from Buffalo to Milwaukee.)
Last December, Sposato and I served as celebrity judges at a Chicago Accent contest emceed by WGN radio host Justin Kaufmann. Even then, he insisted he can’t hear his accent.
Patrick McDonough and Frank Coconate
The host and a frequent guest on the “Chicago Clout” podcast are both veterans of the Chicago Water Department. (Since losing his job in what he calls payback for political activism, Coconate has also worked as a beer vendor at Wrigley Field.) When Coconate talks about getting “hit with tay-xes,” he’s using the “raised a” of the Northern Cities Vowel Shift.
“If you remember, over hunnerd years ago, they had a thing called the rahhhber barons, ayend the rahhhber barons were against the working man,” McDonough observes, before going on to observe that “in Illinois, expecially Chicago,” the robber barons are union bosses.
Judy Baar Topinka
I first heard Judy Baar Topinka’s accent on a news clip in 1994, the year she first ran for comptroller. At the time, I was living in Decatur.
“Where’s she from?” I asked a colleague.
“Somewhere up north.”
Riverside, to be exact, but she always sounded like the waitress with the heart of gold from Berwyn who asks, “What’ll you have today, hon?”
A native of Melrose Park, O’Bradovich played defensive end for the Bears from 1962 to 1971. Two strikes in his favor. He now hosts a Bears postgame show on WGN. On a recent episode, he talked about “Chase Daniels” stepping in for Mitchell Trubisky. After the show, he presumably stopped by the Jewels on the way home. Here he is talking about when Wrigley Field was the Bears’ home field: “Dat was really something, to play dere.”
Coomer grew up near Midway Airport, started high school at St. Rita, and graduated from Lockport High. Coomer played major league baseball, mostly for the Twins. Today, his South Side stylings can be heard on WBBM, where he works as a color commentator for the North Side team, the Cubs. Coomer’s voice is exactly what the city needs alongside Pat Hughes, who grew up in California and lost whatever local accent he may have had in broadcasting school. Here’s Coomer talking about how he prepares for games, featuring lots of Northern Cities Vowel Shift action.
Bonnie Hunt and Robin Baumgarten
Bonnie Hunt has a great Chicago accent for Hollywood. But when she comes back home, she can’t compete with Robin Baumgarten, a Southwest Side girl who graduated from Queen of Peace in Burbank and never left.
A boxer from the Near West Side, Lira fought for the lightweight title against Ernesto España in 1979. He came away with a broken jaw and a nose that spread across his face like Silly Putty. In retirement, he called himself “the Original Pug” and lobbied for boxers’ pensions. Lira died in 2012, of liver failure and chronic traumatic encephalopathy. His classic Chicago accent lives on in this interview from a boxing gym in Fuller Park.
Boy, did Richard Cotovsky get screwed. While writing his play Superior Donuts, Tracy Letts created the role of world-weary donut shop owner and burned-out hippie Arthur Przybyszewski specifically with the Chicago actor in mind. But Cotovsky was bumped to understudy when Michael McKean, who’s from New York, signed on to do the play at Steppenwolf. Then Judd Hirsch, who’s also from New York, played Arthur in the CBS sitcom based on the play. Cotovsky did play the role at Mary-Arrchie Theatre. He was better, and more Chicago, than either of those guys. Here he is talking about making Payback with Mel Gibson.
Tony from the East Side
Justin Kaufmann and I heard a lot of classic Chicago accents while co-hosting the “Chicago Accent Challenge” on WGN, but we had to love Tony, who asked us “How youse guys doin’?” and told us he lives “on da lakefront, over by a hunnert street.” Tony comes in at 13:00 in this clip, but listen to the whole thing for great accents all around.
The Girls in the Eagle Insurance Commercial
“Look at those lowwww rates!”