We think you’ll agree: nothing gives you away as a tourist like visiting a place and saying its name wrong. If you’ve been trying to figure out how to pronounce Chicago before your visit, you’ve probably noticed that people seem to say it in lots of different ways. So, how do Chicagoans pronounce Chicago? We’ll dive into some answers in the guide below!

How Chicagoans Pronounce Chicago: “Chi-CAW-go” vs. “Chi-CAH-go”

There’s some disagreement among locals as to which of these common pronunciations is the correct way to pronounce Chicago. As a visitor, saying either “Chi-CAW-go” or “Chi-CAH-go” will sound just fine. Still, there are some interesting details to consider here:

  • Black Chicagoans, younger residents, and Chicago transplants are more likely to say “Chi-CAH-go.”
  • Older generations and Irish-American residents are more likely to say “Chi-CAW-go.”
  • Some speakers pronounce the last syllable as “ah” rather than “oh.”
  • The “Chi-CAW-go” pronunciation is gradually giving way to the “Chi-CAH-go” pronunciation.

Shifting Vowels and the Chicago Accent

So, what happened during the past four decades to cause a shift from the boomer-era “Chi-CAW-go” to the more widespread use of “Chi-CAH-go?” Blame it on the reversal of the Northern Cities Vowel Shift. Up through the World War II period, regional vowel shifts that caused a rising short “a” began to spread through the upper Midwest.

For Chicago residents at the time, this meant a tendency to replace “th” with “d”—as in “dese, dem and dose”—and pronouncing the “a” vowel in Chicago as “aw.” That’s why many older Chicagoans still insist that the correct way to pronounce Chicago is “Chi-CAW-go.”

Why is Chicago Pronounced with a “Sh” Sound?

Non-native English speakers often find Chicago’s “sh” pronunciation confusing. So, why is it said with a “sh” rather than a “ch?” The pronunciation of Chicago’s first syllable makes a lot more sense when you consider its etymology. Derived from the Algonquian word meaning “place of smelly onions,” “Checagow” was the word was recorded by French explorers, who may have added the “sh” pronunciation.

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