The “classic Chicago” accent, with its elongated vowels and its tendency to substitute “dese, dem, and dose” for “these, them, and those,” or “chree” for “three,” was the voice of the city’s white working class. “Dese, Dem, and Dose Guy,” in fact, is a term for a certain type of down-to-earth Chicagoan, usually from a white South Side neighborhood or an inner-ring suburb. . . .The Daleys were the political leaders of old Chicago and sounded like it; more recently the city has been led by Rahm Emanuel, who sounds like what he is, a former Washington policy hand.
The classic accent was most widespread during the city’s industrial heyday. Blue-collar work and strong regional speech are closely connected: If you were white and graduated high school in the 1960s, you didn’t need to go to college, or even leave your neighborhood, to get a good job, and once you got that job, you didn’t have to talk to anyone outside your house, your factory, or your tavern. A regular-joe accent was a sign of masculinity and local cred, bonding forces important for the teamwork of industrial labor.
A 1970s study of Chicago steelworker families found that housewives were less likely than their husbands to say “dese, dem, and dose,” because they dealt with doctors, teachers, and other professionals. After the mills closed, kids went to college, where their teachers told them not to say “dese, dem, and dose,” and then they took office jobs requiring interaction with people outside the neighborhood.
Language is social, and big changes always represent big changes in the societies that use it. The transformation of Pittsburgh and Chicago from industrial centers to post-industrial meccas of office life has of course meant changes in the way people speak.