Researcher Studies Chicagoans’ Unique Language Patterns

By Grace Kuikman

Until I lived away from the city for three years, I didn’t hear my distinctive Chicago accent or realize the impact that my South Side upbringing had on the way I think as well as talk.

This summer, a team of researchers in the Linguistics Department at Northwestern University led by Assistant Professor Annette D’Onofrio, is conducting a research study, The Chicagoland Language Project. Through that study, D’Onofrio is listening closely as life-long residents of Chicago and Beverly/Morgan Park tell their stories, using what she hears to discern more about the way language influences social behavior.

According to D’Onofrio, the study is designed to document language and life in Chicago by capturing people’s experiences in their own words, focusing on the language and culture of Chicago residents in different neighborhoods and suburbs.

According to information provided by the study, the dialects of English spoken in Chicago have been relatively understudied compared to other large urban areas of the United States. Rather than assuming that there is just one way to “talk like a Chicagoan,” researchers are visiting specific neighborhoods and talking with a variety of people.

“There are so many different neighborhoods, lifestyles and perspectives within the city of Chicago.” D’Onofrio said.  “Researchers know quite a bit about social dynamics and divisions in the city, but we know much less about how language fits into that picture. Our project aims to look at the many different ways a person can be a Chicagoan, and how this corresponds to language.”

D’Onofrio and her students have begun conducting interviews with residents of Beverly and Morgan Park, and will continue throughout the summer. “We decided to start with Beverly and Morgan Park because of these neighborhoods’ rich histories, diversity, and strong sense of community,” D’Onofrio says. “We’re interested in learning what it means to people to be part of these communities, and we hope to interview as many residents of these neighborhoods as we can, from all walks of life.”

Interviews, which are taped, center on what it’s like to grown up and live in your community and Chicago, and whether you think people in different areas use language differently. Study participants are also asked to read a short list of words and offer opinions in a short listening experiment. The entire session takes about an hour to complete.

D’Onofrio, whose father was a New Yorker and spoke like one, grew up in Minnesota, where the accent is influenced by the proximity to Canada. She became interested in linguistics when she enrolled in a class in college. “I had a facility for it,” she said. That may be an understatement.

D’Onofrio, who was awarded a Mellon Dissertation Year Fellowship, earned her PhD from Stanford University in 2016, and accepted a position as an assistant professor in the Department of Linguistics at Northwestern University.

“I’m broadly interested in how phonetic features play into the ways that we understand and create the social world around us,” D’Onofrio said in a statement on her Northwestern University faculty profile. “I am particularly interested in how we use social information to understand spoken language, and how we use linguistic styles to form ideas about who other people are, both consciously and automatically.”

D’Onofrio and her team will be conducting interviews with Beverly/Morgan Park residents locally, including at the BAPA office, through September. Participants of all ages are needed. To learn more about participating in the Chicago Language Project study can contact D’Onofrio at donofrio@northwestern.edu.