top of page


The foreign languages of Illinois

Illinois Times

January 26, 1984

As a boy,  I was given very few lessons in how to compose American English. I was taught even less about how to pronounce it, apart from never saying "ain't." I grew with less of an accent than some of my older relatives nonetheless because I had the helpful example of television reporters and hosts. 


I say "less of an accent," not "no accent. I was flattered when one of my New York editors wanted to show me off to his friends until I realized that I was regarded as a curiosity because I was able to converse intelligently in a hick accent. (Brooklyn boy Norman Mailer was similarly fascinated by James Jones, who grew up in Robinson, Illinois, maybe 90 miles south of Springfield.) 

Looking back on the outcome of the game itself, it seems now to have been a small enough complaint. But at the time I shared the irritation expressed by Chuck Flynn, the editor of the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette in his pre-Rose Bowl editorial. “We hope . . . fervently that the announcers will have learned how to say ill-in-noy' and ill-lye'-nye, not ill-in-noise' and ill'-in-nee.”


To Flynn, “Illinoise” may seem simply an error born of some failure of exposure or instruction of the sort which explain Mr. Reagan’s fanciful excursions on such topics as polluting trees. But how can we explain the fact that more than a few native Illinoisans say “illinoise”? it is tempting to answer that the “noise”-makers are wrong and the rest of us correct; the English are not the only people who use spoken speech to rank people according to class.


But might not “Illinoise” be thought an acceptable variant of Illinois? Or even preferred? Precedent rather favors the noise-makers. The first white explorers hereabouts were French, and the name of the state is a Frenchification of the Miami Indian word “ininiwek.” The place is littered with French place names, though you’d never know it to hear Illinoisans speak. Our rendering of Des Plaines, as in “Chicago, suburb of,” is typical. We Anglicize it in the crudest possible way so that it comes out as “dez planes.” The names of towns such as Vincennes come in for similar rough treatment. (One of the very few exceptions is found in eastern Illinois, where locals refer to the Embarras River as the “ahm-barrah.”)


It is sobering to reflect that we are outdone in sophistication by Iowans, who manage to get their tongues around Des Moines without accident. I’m certain that it is commonplace of conversation in Perry County to berate whatever damn fool who stuck in so many useless letters when he spelled the name of “Buckup” (that is, Beaucoup) Creek.


Clearly, any people whose general cultural resistance to foreign languages is so inveterate that the manufacturers of Chic jeans feel compelled to call their product “Chick” are not likely to balk at “Mar-sales.” However, were our pronunciation of French place names merely incorrect it wouldn’t be interesting. It’s inconsistent as well. Look at “Illinois” again. Most of us make a concession to the original French by not sounding the final “s” but shrink from giving it its full French pronunciation, which would cause it to blossom on our lips as “eel-ee-nwah.” This is much more musical, as well as evocative of the state’s past. But it is likely to remain beyond the ambitions of a generation of news readers who pronounce even a straightforward English word such as "nuclear" as “nuke-you-ler.”


Actually, we tend to speak English as if it were a foreign language too. When L. summered in London a few years ago, she was often mistaken by locals for an Australian. Midwesterners have much in common with Aussies—Australia was settled by crooks, Illinois is run by them—including a nasal tone of speech and wayward vowels.


I’ve always guessed that our peculiar speech can be traced to the circumstances of settlement, leaving us with an unlucky blend of Kentucky drawl and Yankee twang. Tone and tempo are ingredients in spoken speech as well as pronunciation. In April last year, the Chicago Tribune's Bob Greene opined that Chicagoans have the worst sounding speech in the country, makirig noises (as he put it) like an El train derailing after taking a curve too fast. Mayor Daley certainly was not John Gielgud. But the Chicagoans I’ve known speak quite acceptable English; indeed, the most Chicago-sounding person I’ve known came from Decatur. Chicagoans do talk faster, however. The speed of speech slows as one moves south from the Loop, possibly because there is less and less to talk about. I carry on conversations with friends from Carbondale the way chess fans on different continents play matches by mail—one word at a time, once every week or two.


However we got our speech, hearing it does not put one in mind of violins. Virtually the only eccentricity to which Downstaters can justly lay claim is their pronunciation of vowels. Almost to a person we pronounce “Illinois” as “ell-uh-noy.” A word such as “anything” is made to travel under false papers, as it were, as “inny-thang.”


Consonants fare little better. One central Illinois TV anchorman refuses (perhaps as a result of some childhood trauma) to pronounce the letter “t” when it appears in certain wording combinations, with the result that “verdict” stumbles into our living rooms at six as “verdick.” In fact, “t” seems to try our patience generally, usually being pronounced as a “d.” (Language teachers of my acquaintance tell me that one of the hardest things about teaching central Illinoisans other languages is getting them to move their lips.) The effect of these habits is reflected in our spelling. Young people, working in the dim light provided by their public educations, spell words the way they sound. Thus “cooties,” the World War I slang for body lice survives on campuses like the U of I’s as “coodies.” Similarly, a graffito at a downtown Springfield bus stop memorializes the visit there of one “Dirdy Jack.”


At the same time, I, like many commentators, bemoan the loss of regional accents in U.S. speech. I agree with critic Louis Kronenberger, who thirty years ago noted that a distinctive way of speech (what he called a “regional twang”) is one of the things that make people interesting. I can offer no better example than that of Mr. Roberts, WCIA’s estimable TV weatherman in whose person resides whatever dignity the medium still possesses around here; Mr. Roberts’ broad “a”'s suggest that he hails from somewhere farther east than Paxton.


It is at the well-deserved risk of being called a hypocrite, therefore, that I also confess that for the last twenty years I’ve been trying hard to get rid of my own regionalisms. I was brought up speaking the rural Illinois of west central Illinois. As a boy I quit calling the nation’s capital “Warshington,” for example, although I still forget that “for” has an “o” in the middle and not an “e.” Were Prof. Higgins to hear me speak, he would peg me instantly as a Beardstonian who spent many of his formative years listening to Don Feldman.


The question occurs, Why? Canadian Stephen Leacock once observed that spoken English was a matter of taste. While he preferred the sound of the cultivated Scot, he spoke Ontario English. “I don’t admire it,” he wrote forty years ago, “but it’s all I can do; anything is better than affectation.” I wonder. Hearing a small town cafe waitress ask, “Kin I git chew innythang?” would spoil your appetite even if the food didn’t.


I can’t deny the charge of affectation, although I should add that the most affected accents of all are those exaggerated regionalisms adopted by people whose education and experience should have taught them otherwise. I think that much of my impulse to be my own Eliza Doolittle came from the same youthful idealism which led me to expect that cops should be kindly and Presidents honest. An “a” should sound like an “a” and a “t” a “t,” I reasoned, because if they didn’t, well, think what a mess the world would get into.


And an “s” like an “s”? As in Ill-i-noise”? □




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

bottom of page