Chicago [shi-KAW-go]

ChicagoSome of the most intriguing dialect mysteries involve place names. One of the more peculiar of these head-scratchers is the local pronunciation of ‘Chicago.’

The Chicago accent, being affected by the Northern Cities Vowel Shift, pronounces ‘ah’ words with something of a fronted or centralized ‘a’ vowel (IPA [a]).  To an outside ear, this can result in ‘father’ sounding as if it were pronounced with the vowel in ‘cat.’  Naturally, one would assume that ‘Chicago’ would have a similar ‘a.’

And yet, as any Chicagoan will tell you, the local realization of the word is ‘shi-KAW-go‘ (i.e. [ʃɪkɔgo] or [ʃɪkɒgo]) with the vowel in ‘flaw.’  Why this very notable exception?

There is nothing in the etymology of the word that explains this.  Quoth the always excellent Online Etymology Dictionary:

Named from a Canadian French form of an Algonquian word, either Fox /sheka:ko:heki “place of the wild onion,” or Ojibwa shika:konk “at the skunk place” (sometimes rendered “place of the bad smell”).

Both of the Native American words associated with the city don’t indicate why ‘aw’ is found in the local pronunciation. It’s probable, then, that the ‘aw’ derives from the intermediary French word that gave the town its name.

One possibility: ‘Long a’ in Quebec French is typically a back vowel (sometimes rounded and/or diphthongized) not all that dissimilar from the vowel used in the local rendering of ‘Chicago.’ Although the ‘a’ in this word shouldn’t be a long vowel under French elongation rules, it’s possible that the French-Canadians who adopted this word made some type of attempt to keep the lengthened ‘a’ of the original American Indian word.

But that’s just one possibility of many. Anyone have more information on how ‘Chicago’ got its distinct pronunciation?

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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46 Responses to Chicago [shi-KAW-go]

  1. IVV says:

    Oh, gosh, I’ve been going nuts about my difference between “ah” and “aw”. I think it’s just backing without rounding, with “ah” being central.

    • trawicks says:

      In many American accents these days, I find it more a matter of backing than rounding. I round the ‘ou’ in ‘thought’ if I’m adding emphasis to the word, but otherwise unrounded more often than not.

  2. Peter S. says:

    Chicago has the /ɑg/ combination in it, which has turned into /ɔg/ in words like dog, log, frog and so forth (although not in some foreign words like raga and Hague and for some reason, for some speakers not in cog). I don’t know when and where this change happened in American English, but I always assumed that Chicago was one of the words affected.

    • trawicks says:

      That’s a really good point. The reason I hadn’t considered that a possibility is that the velar in ‘Chicago’ doesn’t precede a morpheme boundary the way ‘frog,’ ‘dog,’ or ‘log’ do. (And you’ll notice that in foreign ‘-ago’ words like ‘Spago’ and ‘asiago,’ Americans don’t gravitate to pronunciations like ‘spaw-go’ and ‘a-si-aw-go’).

      By the way, I actually DO have the ‘cloth’ vowel for COG (albeit one only slightly different from my ‘lot’ vowel). So perhaps the similarity between ‘-cag-‘ and ‘cog’ did play some part.

      • Peter S. says:

        I don’t know when the sound change happened, but ‘raga’, ‘Spago’ and ‘asiago’ might easily have been introduced to English after it. And ‘Hague’ may once have been pronounced to rhyme with ‘vague’. Ngrams shows that the spelling ‘dawg’ started increasing in frequency in the U.S. around 1880 (and in the U.K. around 1860), but this is pretty inconclusive evidence.

        • Matthew says:

          I thought “Hague” was still commonly pronounced to rhyme with “vague”, if you’re talking about the Hague in the Netherlands. Maybe I misunderstood you.

        • IVV says:

          For the longest time, when I saw “dawg” I thought [daug]. Since my ah/aw split is (I think) /ä/ vs. /ɑ/, “dog” is [däg] but no one’s going to pay [dɑg] any attention. It wasn’t until I lived in New Jersey for long enough that I realized it could be [dɔg]; I don’t have /ɔ/ at all in my accent.

    • m.m. says:

      Duh! I never imagined ‘chicago’ to be affected by the lot-cloth split. Of course I probably wouldn’t have ever thought of it because im a complete low back merger.

  3. Matthew says:

    I’m not so sure that the local pronunciation is ‘shi-KAW-go’. If you listen to this radio interview of a local linguist, you’ll hear that even she and the host (also a Chicagoan) don’t know what the majority local pronunciation is. Click on “Corrine McCarthy” to hear it. The part I’m talking about is at 10:45. It’s an interesting interview to listen to if you have the time to listen to it in its entirety.

    It could be that the ‘shi-KAW-go’ pronunciation only occurs within Chicagoland (the Chicago metropolitan area) and nowhere else even if it isn’t the local majority pronunciation. This could give outsiders the impression that it is the local majority pronunciation when they visit the area and hear a few people using it.

  4. Tom says:

    My sister had an old book of pronunciations (I believe it was British, and published in the 1920s or ’30s—we’re American). I don’t know if she still has it, but it goes out of its way to caution the speaker against pronouncing “Chicago” as “CHICK-uh-go”, claiming that many non-natives mistakenly pronounce it that way. I can’t remember how the correct pronunciation of the middle syllable was rendered, though.

    • Tom says:

      The book was “10,000 Words Often Mispronounced”, and it was British, she says. Her ex-husband ended up with it. Oh, well.

      • Tom says:

        Google scanned it: http://books.google.com/books?id=MNYRAAAAIAAJ&pg=PA43&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=4#v=onepage&q&f=false.

        My apologies. I mis-remembered their caution: it was mainly against mis-pronouncing the “ch” part. See page 137. They seem to lean toward the “KAW” pronunciation, if I understand their diacritical key correctly.

        And the book was published in 1889, with this third edition in 1903.

        • Peter S. says:

          That book is fascinating. It says to pronounce the aw in both dog and Chicago with a vowel halfway between not and or. “‘to give the extreme short sound to such words is affectation: to give them the full sound of broad a is vulgar.’—Web.

        • Peter S. says:

          And if you look in the Webster dictionary where this quote appeared, “sauce” is called a broad a, while “father” is called an Italian a. The Italian a and the short o vowels are said to differ only in length.

        • Tom says:

          They also claim that the “a” in “Cincinnati” is pronounced like the “a” in “father”, and their pronunciations of the “a” in “Christmas” (KRISS-mass) and “chocolate” (CHOCK-o-lait) are certainly alien to my experience!

  5. Jim Johnson says:

    Having lived there for about ten years, I noticed there are two major pronunciations of the middle syllable: [ɒ] or [a]. There’s no hard and fast rule, but from my experience, the first is largely said on the south side, and the second on the north side. (The north side has a lot of transplants as well, which could certainly affect this.) This north side version is sometimes also [æ], which is what my wife picked up during our time there – this is also what you tend to hear in “Da Bears” skits from SNL. (We were Iowa and Nebraska transplants ourselves, and live on the north and west sides, and I also spent a number of years working on the south side.)

    • trawicks says:

      Interesting perspective, Jim. I’m sometimes wonder if many Chicagoans are insistent that [ɒ] is the ‘correct’ pronunciation not because it’s the only way it’s pronounced, but because [a] became stereotypical.

  6. Andrej Bjelaković says:

    “Another possibility is that it began as a hypercorrective reaction to the fronted/centralized Chicago [a].”

    This was my first thought too. Just as the onomatopoeic word for the sound the chicken makes didn’t change after the Great Vowel Shift – it was [pi:] before, and it stayed [pi:], it did not become [paɪ ] – the Chicagoans perhaps tended to preserve the vowel quality in the placename that is the most relevant to them. So when the LOT vowel began to shift, the word switched to the CLOTH/THOUGHT set.

    • trawicks says:

      There are, in various English accents and dialects, a host of situations where words that are predictably in the LOT (or a similar) set are instead part of THOUGHT. Some varieties of African American English, for example, have ‘god’ in the ‘thought’ set, and there is also the strange case of the Irish pronunciation of the letter ‘r’ — you’ll note that RTE often sounds like ‘or tee ee.’

      • Andrej Bjelaković says:

        Yeah, but that’s to do with the quality of START and NORTH, which has nothing to do with the above topic. But on that note, didn’t many speakers from St. Louis until recently have that “I was barn in a born” thing?

        • Matthew says:

          Yep. Some still do. I believe it’s the people there who don’t merge NORTH and FORCE who may have that. It’s a merger of NORTH and START with FORCE remaining distinct from both. The phonetic quality of the merged vowel is usually in the [ɒ ~ ɔ] area. If you go here and click on the play button on the left side of the gray horizontal bar, you can hear a St. Louisan say cardinal and warm with the same vowel and door distinct from both. Some of his vowels sound a bit “Chicago-y” too, which is a bit more relevant to the topic of this post.

        • Matthew says:

          This map also might be of interest. The red areas are where the NORTH-FORCE distinction can still be found in America. It doesn’t show the West, though, where there may be Utahans and others who make the distinction.

  7. Sooryan FM says:

    Chicago accent is so weird it’s virtually banned in Hollywood. Married with Children featured a cast of entirely C/C merged crew (most of them Californians, with Valley Girl accented Christina Applegate as Kelly Bundy, and central Ohio-born actor who interpreted the father: Al Bundy).

    The same happened this year, the movie ”Bad Teacher” with Cameron Diaz set in Chicago with almost entirely Californian cast (Ok, Justin Timberlake is Southern). Not a single trace of the Chicago accent.

    • dw says:

      “Friends”, though set in New York, had very little trace of the New York accent (except possibly in a few minor fringe characters). It’s not something unique to Chicago.

  8. Sooryan FM says:

    You can hear it here:

  9. Ellen K. says:

    Curiously, I say [ʃɪkɔgo], but when I read, I think [ʃɪkago]. Perhaps not surprising, since my parents are from Chicago, south side, and I visited there many times to visit grandparents, but I’ve lived my whole life elsewhere. Thus, I’ve been exposed to both, in different contexts.

  10. D Rover says:

    Who says ‘tshi-KA-go‘ (i.e. [ʃɪkago]) then? I mean particularly the consonant diphthong at the beginning. It seems I heard a lot of people saying this somewhere, and it seemed like a dialect variant, not just people who had little experience with the word.

  11. D Rover says:

    I noticed that in the west people say OR-e-g’n and in the east OR-e-gahn.

    • trawicks says:

      You wouldn’t want to say ‘OR-e-gahn’ anywhere in the Pacific Northwest! The ‘Eastern’ pronunciation is the oddity more than the other way around.

    • IVV says:

      If you watch Sooryan FM’s video through, Youtube sends a link to an “Oregon Accent” video, where the speaker explains that the name of the state is “OR-e-g’n.”

  12. Sooryan FM says:

    Another ”complicated” local name is Nevada. 😉

  13. Eric Armstrong says:

    Jim, of course, nails it. I have always thought of t as a CLOTH word, in spite of its spelling. Most people are unaware of the LOT / CLOTH split in Chicago, but it is the of course.

    • Matthew says:

      I’m pretty sure the LOT/CLOTH split happens in every American accent that has a distinction between the vowels of LOT and THOUGHT.

  14. Charles Sullivan says:

    Chicago-related. Why pronounce Da Bears with an ‘S’ sound at the end but not a ‘Z’ sound? I think it exists in Cleveland too.

  15. Yace says:

    Non-scientific, non-linguistic response: Many, MANY years ago when I first spent time around non-Chicagoans, I consciously converted from /ɑg/ to /ɔg/ because I thought /ɔg/ DIDN’T sound so much like a native Chicagoan. I love my city and my roots, but I also thought using /ɔg/ in pronouncing my city made me sound smarter. Go figure.

  16. Emily B. says:

    I get so annoyed because some people around where i’m from say chi+car+go with an “r” sound after the second syllable. I’ve always said it it the proper way, which is how it looks chi+kaw+go, and it’s one of my petpeeves.

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  18. sara says:

    Born and raised in Chicago , it is and has always been Chi-kaw-go. Anyone who pronounces it differently is not from Chicago. It irks me when radio and television personalities say it wrong. Oh well. They are not from Chikawgo. Go figure. At least us Chicagoans can tell .