Don’t Ax

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A version of this post appeared on my personal blog yesterday.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist Eugene Kane “wonders” what it means if you “ask” about African Americans pronouncing the word as “ax.” He is for proper pronunciation but scolds about not singling out particular ethnic groups for incorrect usage and pronunciation, noting that nobody cares about midwesterners who love “da Bears.” That is probably a poor example. It is quite common to make fun of that particular pronunciation. Especially north of the 42/30.

But I have a different point.

Mostly, I want to plug a fascinating book about linguistics for a general audience (that would be me) by Seth Lerer called Inventing English.

A lot of improper usage and pronunciation (and I don’t hesitate to call it improper)have roots in what once was considered to be, as Kane puts it, “the Kings English.”

It turns out that “ax” (or, perhaps more precisely “acs) may be one of them. In fact, it appears that the King’s English was exactly what it was. It seems that our verb “ask” replaced the Old English “acsianthrough deliberate (as opposed to accidental)metathesis, i.e., twisting the order of sounds. (An accidental example would be saying pasghetti instead of spaghetti.) Sometimes these old vestiges of the language hang on as variations and variations are often regional, spreading by, as it were, word of mouth. It’s not that modern speakers can’t keep their Olde English straight from the modern version. They haven’t the slightest idea why they grew up with an outmoded form.

These pronunciations (or even grammatical forms such as a phrase like “she be sick” which has roots, Lerer argues, in certain creole dialects)are “wrong.” But they stem from what used to be right. Hanging on to “ax” instead of “ask” has been popular in the American south and, for that reason, among African Americans (and, as Kane says,  a tad condescendingly, among “corn-fed” whites). To use another example, look at my post at Shark and SDhepherd ringing in Irish Fest and listen to the Cranberries’ Delores O’Riordan sing about how she liked it when she was “out dere.” Gaelic has no “th” sound and Irish speakers of English often choose not to pronounce it – or at least not very clearly. It’s not that they can’t or even that they don’t know that they should. It isn’t that Gaelic sticks to “simple” sounds (it has more individual sounds than English). It’s that this is what was heard around the kitchen table.

The politically correct – and boring – response to this is to argue that all usages are equally valid. In some sense, they may be (although sometimes these changes served a linguistic purpose) but language doesn’t exist in a vacuum. We don’t speak Olde English anymore and English is not Gaelic.

Sometimes these pronunciations and usages can be valid when we are speaking informally. (I am told that my mother-in-law used to return to her “corn-fed” southern usages when reprimanding her children.)But it is perfectly appropriate to insist upon what has become standard pronunciation and usages when context requires it.

But the reasons that people “talk wrong” – and the ways in which nonstandard language can have its own special delights – are far more fascinating than simple ignorance. I enjoyed Lerer’s book and, if this post held any interest for you, I highly recommend it.

4 thoughts on “Don’t Ax”

  1. This is an interesting issue, which is that no one speaks English “correctly,” or the way it’s written, anyway. “Iron” is an even more common example of the reversal of sounds. And I’m now discovering the difficulty of sounding out complete words myself, as I try to teach my son by example that “gonna” is actually two words, and “and” has two other letters in it besides “n.”

  2. Thanks for the book recommendation, Rick. The Teaching Company has a GREAT audio course called The History of the English Language. The course is taught by Professor Seth Lerer, the same person who wrote the book Inventing English, noted above. I highly recommend the audio course for anyone interested in an in-depth treatment of this topic. Another great feature of the audio course is that you can listen to it while driving in the car, which makes your time productive, and, hopefully, more balanced (referring to Jay Rabideaux’s excellent post today).

  3. Chaucer: “I axe, why the fyfte man Was nought housband to the Samaritan?” (Canterbury Tales, Wife’s Prologue 1386).

    For some reason, this pronunciation died out in the north of England before it did in the Midlands and the South. That is why you typically hear it used by African-American and white southerners from the tidewater and black belt regions. The Englishmen who settled the lowland South said “ax”. The Englishmen who settled the mountain South disproportionately came from the northern highlands where that pronunciation had completely died out by the 18th century.

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