America’s Loveliest Accents: Chicago

In my last post, I gave Prince as an example of a Minneapolis native with a lovely accent. Prince is black, and you can hear it in his voice because there are at least two different kinds of Minneapolis accent, due in part to segregation. But he doesn’t just have a black accent, he has a Minneapolis black accent. There’s also a Minneapolis white accent, and maybe a Minneapolis Hmong accent too.

For many years if you took an introductory linguistics course you might be forgiven for believing that there were several accents (all spoken by white people) and one black accent. Those of us who actually listened to African Americans knew differently, and now the documentation seems to be catching up, thanks in part to social media like Twitter and YouTube. A few weeks ago, Taylor Jones presented data from Twitter showing patterns of black English that corresponded to the three streams of the Great Migration: East Coast, Ohio River, and Mississippi River/Denver/West Coast.

My sense is that most regional black accents have some features that they share with other dialects spoken in the region and some features they share with other black accents, and some features that are unique to those accents. After reading Jones’s post, I would guess that they also have features they share with their particular migration streams.


I lived in Chicago for a year and came to appreciate all the city’s accents: black, white, Chicano and others. Chicago, being a big city, has its share of tough guys and actors who play them, full of /r/s and Northern Cities vowels. But the city also exports tough guys: as William Labov told ABC’s 20/20 in 1999, actor Dennis Franz played a detective on NYPD Blue with his native Chicago accent, and Labov seemed to be one of the few people who noticed.

This is part 8 of a series where I say nice things about all sixteen of the accents that Gawker’s Dayna Evans nominated for “America’s Ugliest Accent.” Previously: Minneapolis. Nextly: Los Angeles.

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