March 2008 Archives

Sigh, I can't help myself:


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Momosuke in Virginia with his snazzy new sports jacket.

Ask vs. Aks / Ax

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On March 1, I gave a talk on deaf identity and language ideologies at Swarthmore college. During the talk, I discussed the language politics behind the pronunciation of the word "ask" in spoken American English.

The contemporary African American Vernacular English pronunciation of "ask" as "aks" or "ax" is often used as an example of bad pronunciation by prescriptive language critics. However, the "aks/ax" form of "ask" is just as old -- if not older, than the "ask" form -- and dates back to Old English.

People have e-mailed me asking for a citation. The best source is the Oxford English Dictionary (second edition 1989) which gives these usages:

I. 1. trans. To call for, call upon (a person or thing personified) to come. Obs.

a1000 Cædmon's Gen. (Gr.) 2453 [Hi] comon cor{th}rum miclum cuman acsian. 1205 LAY. 19967 He lette axien anan Men {th}at cu{edh}en hæuwen stan.

2. without mention of the person asked: a. with the thing asked as an object sentence or clause (in indirect, or, less commonly, direct oration).

c1000 Ags. Ps. xiv. [2] Ic ahsi{asg}e, Hwa {th}ær earda{edh}? a1038 Charter of Eanwene in Cod. Dipl. IV. 54 {Edh}á ácsode {edh}e bis~ceop hwá sceólde andswerian for his módor. c1200 ORMIN Te{ygh}{ygh} sholldenn..asskenn what he wære. a1300 Cursor M. 7887 He askes, quat was {th}at leuedi? c1305 St. Crist. 149 in E.E.P. (1862) 63 {Th}is gode man..eschte what hi wolde. c1386 CHAUCER Wife's Prol. 21, I axe, why the fyfte man Was nought housbond to the Samaritan? c1420 Avow. Arth. xxiv, Gauan asshes, ‘Is hit soe?’ 1455 E. CLERE in Four C. Eng. Lett. 5 He askid what the Princes name was. 1549 COVERDALE Erasm. Par. Rom. Prol., He axeth not whether good workes are to be done or not. 1597 SHAKES. 2 Hen. IV, III. ii. 71 May I aske, how my Lady his Wife doth? 1711 STEELE Spect. No. 454 {page}6 To ask what I wanted. Mod. Ask who it is. He asks if you are ready. I merely ask, ‘Is it true?’

b. with the question expressed by a n. or pronoun: To ask a question, this, something. to ask (a horse) the question: to call upon him for a special effort.

c1320 R. BRUNNE Medit. 430 Some axen questyons to do hym wrong. 1387 TREVISA Higden (1865) I. 67 {Th}re questiouns bee{th} i-axed. 1803 PEGGE Anecd. Eng. Lang. 114 A true born Londoner, Sir, of either sex, always axes question, axes pardon, and at quadrille axes leave. 1850 TENNYSON In Mem. xiv, And ask a thousand things of home. 1894 H. CUSTANCE Riding Recoll. vi. 88 Until the last ten strides, when I really asked ‘King Lud’ the question.

We can see that 'aks/ax' was a valid pronunciation from 1000 CE ("acsian") through at least 1549 CE ("He axeth"). If anyone axe, just say that no one lesser than Chaucer spelt it that way.

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