Exploring Chicago’s diversity of language: Neubauer Family Assistant Professor Sharese King analyzes variations of African American speech

April 19, 2022

Language is a primary communication mechanism, and the ways people use language can reflect the history of an individual’s cultural identity. Sharese King, Neubauer Family Assistant Professor in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Chicago, is studying African American language from multiple perspectives to learn about diversity across racialized speakers, perceptions of African American speech, and the social and political consequences of using racialized language patterns.

In partnership with Annette D’Onofrio, Assistant Professor of Linguistics at Northwestern University, King launched the Chicagoland Language Project, which aims to better understand the diversity of language in Chicago: whether there truly are “Chicago” ways of speaking English; if Chicago language patterns have evolved over time; and how language connects to Chicagoans’ histories, lives, and perspectives. By exploring local dialectology, King hopes to learn more about what it means to be a Chicagoan who may or may not speak African American Vernacular English. The project recently received a Collaborative Research Award from the National Science Foundation and has expanded its initial focus on the Beverly and Morgan Park areas to include Bronzeville, Jefferson Park, and Edison Park.

King is currently working on interviewing residents of the Bronzeville neighborhood to learn more about the history of people who live in the area and how the location impacts speech. With a goal of interviewing 50 Bronzeville residents, King and her team have utilized several recruitment methods, including Instagram and Facebook ads along with flyers circulated throughout the community, to recruit a broader range of participants for the study. The COVID-19 pandemic has posed some challenges, including eliminating the ability to do in-person recruiting, and it moved the entire interview process online. However, they are hoping to resume in-person interviews this spring and summer due to the recent lifting of COVID-19-related restrictions. Participants are interviewed individually for one hour to learn more about their speech patterns and about their history in the neighborhood.

“We ask them about how their family first moved to the area, and we’ve been hearing a lot of Great Migration stories,” King said. “We’ve also been hearing a lot about how the neighborhood has changed over time and are asking if people left the neighborhood for a time and then came back. People are also sharing their overall impressions of the neighborhood and talking about how they feel about Bronzeville language patterns in relation to the rest of Chicago.”

Although the interviews are still in process, King said that most participants have been African Americans and that many of them traced their family roots back to Mississippi, and in some cases Alabama. In many cases, a southern influence is noted in their dialect—multiple participants shared that people occasionally mistake them as being from the south. King also said that overall, most of the Bronzeville residents she interviewed said they think there is a big distinction between “white Chicago speech” and “Black Chicago speech.”

This summer, King and her team will create a smaller sample from the interviews to review the data, looking at specific vowel sounds and differences across age and gender. Results will be shared through the Chicago Language Project, which currently plans to expand to include data collection from additional Chicago neighborhoods through 2024. Plans for sharing the research with the broader Chicago community are still in development and may include partnerships with local public libraries, along with a website featuring an interactive map and a podcast to help make the project and the personal narratives available to as many people as possible.

“We definitely want this to be something the public has access to, even if that means just letting people hear how they sounds to each other in a literal and figurative kind of way,” King said. “I also want people to learn more about dialects in general and about what makes a Chicago dialect unique, and I hope people take pride in that. I also hope the project inspires all people to think about how their speech is influenced by their backgrounds and where they come from.”