I was in a bar in Beverly, watching the Bears play the Jaguars. After the Bears went up 13-0 on a Conor Barth field goal, a gray-haired gentleman shouted across the room, “Hey, what are da squares for dis quarter?”
“Zero and chree,” came the response from the man holding the money.
On the train back I got into a conversation with a young man in his 30s. He was a firefighter from neighboring Mount Greenwood. If anyone can rock a Classic Chicago Accent, it’s a firefighter from Mount Greenwood. But he didn’t sound like a Chicagoan. He didn’t even sound like a Midwesterner. His speech was Broadcast Neutral. When I mentioned this to him, he told me, “Yeah, my dad talks that way, but my mom kind of beat it out of me. Sometimes it comes out when I’m drunk.”
There’s long been anecdotal evidence that the Classic Chicago Accent, the traditional dialect of the city’s white ethnics, is in decline. Now, we have academic and scientific evidence that it’s on the way out—perhaps because of the attitudes you sometimes hear expressed in it.
The Chicagoland Language Project, founded in 2017 by linguists Annette D’Onofrio at Northwestern University and Sharese King at the University of Chicago, conducted a study of white speakers in Beverly and Morgan Park. Its conclusions: the Northern Cities Vowel Shift—the linguistic phenomenon that causes speakers in the Great Lakes region to pronounce “trap” as “tray-ep” and “lot” as “lahhht”—is declining in the younger generation. The reason may be related to the neighborhood’s integration, and its more progressive attitudes on race.
The Project chose Beverly because “we wanted to study a community that has people who’ve lived there for most of their lives,” said Jaime Benheim, a doctoral student in linguistics at Northwestern. “A lot of Chicago neighborhoods have transient communities and transplants. We also wanted a community that’s relatively diverse. We wanted to study how diversity changes language.”
Although Beverly has historically been an Irish Catholic stronghold, its demographics are now 56.7 percent white and 34.9 black, making it one of the city’s most integrated neighborhoods.
D’Onofrio, an assistant professor of Linguistics at Northwestern, conducted interviews with 40 white Beverly residents, ranging in age from twentysomethings to senior citizens. She found that the raised “a” in “trap” and the fronted “o” in “lot” are less pronounced among young people. (Speakers of all generations still pronounce “cot” and “caught” differently, an enduring hallmark of Great Lakes speech.)
As D’Onofrio and Benheim reported in “Contextualizing reversal: Local dynamics of the Northern Cities Shift in a Chicago community,” a paper published in the September 2020 Journal of Sociolinguistics, everyone in the neighborhood agreed on who spoke with the strongest accents: “tradesmen, police officers, firefighters, and other union members, as well as historically ‘White ethnic’ working class speakers.”
In the minds of younger residents, though, these figures symbolized an earlier era in Beverly’s history, when it was a “white flight” neighborhood, resistant to integration and to a Black mayor’s control of City Hall. Not sounding like a “Dese, Dem and Dose” guy is a way of rejecting that history, and signaling acceptance of the incoming black population. Younger residents also had more contact with African Americans, who don’t speak with the Northern Cities Vowel Shift, though it does inflect Chicago’s “Blaccent.”
(There is a theory that the Northern Cities Vowel Shift is a form of linguistic white flight, adopted by speakers in northern industrial cities to differentiate themselves from Great Migration Blacks. The researchers found that the Vowel Shift was stronger among Catholics, whose ancestors moved to Beverly to escape integration elsewhere on the South Side, than among Protestants with deeper roots in the community.)
“The social group most likely to use the NCS at earlier points in the community’s history—Irish Catholics—came to be emblematic of these neighborhoods,” D’Onofrio and Benheim wrote. “More recently, as the neighborhood has evolved to become racially diverse via integration of African-American families, general attitudes toward ‘integration’ have evolved in tandem. The community-wide trend toward reversal likely reflects increased contact and growing support of racialized integration, which many argue are attitudes that characterize the neighborhood in its current state, and movement away from ‘White flight’-like attitudes ideologically linkable with localized ‘White ethnic’ personae who characterized the community in the mid-20th century.”
The Northern Cities Vowel Shift isn’t just disappearing in Chicago. Researchers have found that it’s leveling out in Upstate New York and mid-Michigan as well. Every generation has its own accent, just as every generation has its own slang, fashion, music and political attitudes. As the Northwestern researchers found, when we think differently from our parents, we talk differently from them, too.
Next, the Chicagoland Language Project plans to study the Northern Cities Vowel Shift in Jefferson Park and Edison Park, which are less integrated than Beverly. We’ll find out if that means the Nort’west Side accent is more durable than the Sout’ Side accent. The aldermen with the strongest Chicago accents—Nick Sposato and Anthony Napolitano—represent those neighborhoods, so it just may be.