What is the local pronunciation of Chicago? (specifically the 'a')

The standard American English pronunciation is

/ʃɪˈkɑ.ɡoʊ/, /ʃɪˈkɔ.ɡoʊ/

or (what I think) is the PALM or LOT lexical sets in AmE.

[Here are some examples of many different people (AmE and others) saying 'Chicago]( https://forvo.com/word/chicago/#en)

The very first example, "Pronunciation by themediacollective (Male from United States)" is what I would think is a very different, very local variety of its pronunciation. Matt3799 and TurtlePoser have this same 'a' but not as strong. Mattpsy and Tory1417 have what I think is the standard version (what I think is US typical).

But what is this special vowel exactly. It doesn't sound like /æ/ TRAP to me even though it is in that direction. The most articulate I can put it is that it is ... annoying. An annoying 'a'.

So what exactly is this 'a'? Is it /æ/ or something else? Does this go with other vowel changes (that I just haven't noticed in this same variety)? Is this one example of Northern Cities Vowel Shift

Note: I'm not suggesting that everyone in Chicago says it this way (I'm sorta suggesting quite the opposite, that few do this even in Chicago)

  • 2
    I'm from Chicago and I can tell you that the most common pronunciation that I heard among North side whites included the a being produced as a reduction of aw. Other areas can render it as ah.
    – Robusto
    Apr 19, 2018 at 18:24
  • Sorta? Is that Spanish?
    – David
    Apr 19, 2018 at 19:46
  • 1
    @David - ¿Kinda?
    – Mitch
    Apr 19, 2018 at 19:51
  • I suspect you have to specify which neighborhood of Chicago you're asking about. (I know this is true of Louisville, where the finely-tuned ear can narrow down your location fairly closely based on how you pronounce the name.)
    – Hot Licks
    Apr 19, 2018 at 20:06
  • 1

2 Answers 2


A broad, present day Chicago accent will most likely front the /ɑ/ in Chicago to something much closer to an /æ/, a change fully in keeping with the Northern Cities Vowel Shift. Some speakers may further alter the vowel corresponding to the shift that affected original /æ/ to a diphthong /ɪə/ or even /ɪɔ/, though that sounds more New York than Chicago to my ears.

The full penetration of the shift to the word Chicago may, however, be fairly recent.

In a brief clip from 1967, Mayor Richard Daley pronounces God, pattern, have, jobs, opportunity, and constitutional with shifted vowels, but the second vowel of Chicago is pronounced as /ɑ/. By the time Mayor Rahm Emmanuel was interviewed last year by Stephen Colbert, however, the vowel has been shifted close to /æ/. Particularly interesting is an African American Chicago native who otherwise speaks a mild form of AAVE, but fronts the vowel in Chicago, although there are no further features of the NCVS in the clip.

David Axelrod, Senior Advisor to Pres. Obama, was born on the Lower East Side, but graduated from the University of Chicago and remained there. His English mostly conforms to “broadcast American” and does not front the vowel.

This suggests that certain Chicago accents will move toward /æ/ while others may retain the “standard” /ɑ/, depending on sociolect or personal choice. You can hear all about the nuances of the Chicago accent in the WGB Radio series “Are you ready to take the Chicago accent challenge?” available online.

  • Are you distinguishing a back [ɑ] from a front [a] here, or are you just writing /a/ more broadly for either or both?
    – tchrist
    Apr 20, 2018 at 12:39
  • Oops! I meant the first, but I prepared my answer in a sans serif type and didn’t think about the answer appearing in a serif type. Corrected.
    – KarlG
    Apr 20, 2018 at 13:11

In forvo, you can click on the speaker and find other words he's pronounced. For this speaker, his 'a' in Chicago seems very much like his 'o' in omelet and not that much like his 'a' in tax (which is shifted in the direction of Tex). So it's /ɑ/ (as shifted by the Northern Cities Shift). And it's not an /ɔ/ (that is, he doesn't have the COT-CAUGHT merger) because he has a different vowel for the 'aw' in tomahawk.

Note that the fact that one speaker pronounces it with /ɑ/ doesn't mean that all Chicagoans pronounce their city's name with /ɑ/; some of them undoubtedly have /ɔ/.

  • 2
    And yet I, raised as a Chicagoan with a careful ear, can attest that they do have the COT-CAUGHT merger, at least on the North Side, and at least with respect to the city name.
    – Robusto
    Apr 19, 2018 at 18:38
  • @Robusto maps of COT/CAUGHT give multiple stories for Chicago (roughly eastern/southern US no merger, western US merger). There could be a socioeconomic difference, or free variation. What part of North Side?
    – Mitch
    Apr 20, 2018 at 13:02
  • @Mitch: Most of the time somewhere within a two-mile radius from Wrigley Field. As far south as Fullerton, as north as Irving, as west as Ashland. Sometimes as close as a couple of blocks.
    – Robusto
    Apr 20, 2018 at 14:08

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