December 2012 Archives

By: Jake Smith, Fourth-Year Student and Civic Journalist for Chicago Studies

Chih-caaa-go. Laaake Mitch-uh-gin. Da Bears. We generally consider this the quintessential Chicago accent--but is it the only one?

This quarter, Associate Professor of Linguistics Alan Yu is teaching Sociophonetics, a seminar that introduces students to "the social aspects of language use." The class is focusing on Chicago speech patterns, and more specifically, whether ethnic communities follow the same patterns as white communities.

Yu explains that unlike traditional linguistics, which examines language in terms of grammar or psychology, sociophonetics merges phonetics (the study of sound production in language) with sociology to understand "how language is being used in a particular context or a particular community."

Certain "northern [Midwest] cities"--like Chicago and urban parts of Michigan and Wisconsin--"have a particular vowel set that is unique to the area," best characterized by the fronted, elongated vowels of da Bears fame, describes Yu. But, he wondered, "are the ethnic communities in Chicago participating in that type of [vowel] change" as well?

Previous research indicates that ethnic communities sometimes resist the linguistic pressures that affect the rest of a city, and Yu suspects that this might be the case in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood.

Through a "Course Connection" organized by the UCSC's Chicago Studies Program, Yu's students ventured to Gads Hill Center in Pilsen, where they recorded and analyzed the language of Latino teenagers raised in the neighborhood. The recordings will help the students assess, "acoustically, what type of vowel production targets [the teenagers] have, and how does that compare to other vowel systems either in Chicago or in the greater U.S. in general," says Yu.

The class will also consider social characteristics "external to the individual," like race, socioeconomic background, and gender norms, in order to hypothesize "how that type of information is mediating how [Pilsen residents] use [their] language."

The students are also considering the effect of bilingualism on Pilsen phonetics. Yu speculates that the prevalence of Spanish in Pilsen, along with the array of sociological factors that come with it, may be changing the sound quality of Pilsen residents' English. "Maybe that shift is counteracting the shift that is happening in Chicago in general," creating a phonetic variation unique to Pilsen, offers Yu.

After Pilsen, Yu wants to investigate sociophonetic patterns in Chinatown and on Chicago's South Side, two ethnically concentrated communities with a diverse mix of competing linguistic pressures. Once he gets information from more parts of the city, Yu intends to "start a website that will showcase all these different systems that are existing in Chicago."

The Sociophonetics Course Connection promises to strengthen ties between Gads Hill Center and the University. Early in Winter Quarter, Professor Yu, UCSC and Gads Hill Center staff plan to have the teens who gave their time for interviews visit UChicago to talk with UChicago students, explore campus resources like the Logan Center or Oriental Institute, and perhaps attend a class.

Relevant links:
Alan Yu's Faculty Page
Gads Hill Center

Winter 2013 Courses Offer Students Opportunity to Engage with the City


The Chicago Studies Program invites you to learn more about your city this winter by registering for one of the Winter 2013 courses that connect to Chicago:

• Reading As a Writer: Chicago Stories
• Introduction to Asian/Pacific Islander American History
• Trade, Development, and Poverty in Mexico
• Approaches to Gender in Anthropology
• Producing Home: The Re-making of Place and Space in Diaspora
• The Black Arts Movement in Chicago
• Adolescent Development
• Baseball & American Culture, 1840 to Present
• Public Finance and Public Policy
• The Business of Nonprofits and the Evolving Social Sector
• The Economics of Crime
• Labor Force and Employment
• Medical Sociology
• Environment, Agriculture, and Food
• Education Organization/Social Inequality
• Musical Performances of Race/Gender/Sexuality
• U.S. Labor History

For a complete list of Chicago Studies Courses, check out the Interdisciplinary Opportunities on the College Catalog website.