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Aks Yourself

April 27, 2009


Have you ever had anyone ‘aks’ you a question? Have you ever ‘aksed’ anybody for something? Do you think it’s annoying or ‘bad english’ when you hear the word pronounced like that?

Pronouncing ‘ask’ as ‘aks,’ (like axe) is a linguistic phenomenon known as metathesis, or the reversal in order of two adjacent letters. It’s not wrong, and it doesn’t mean somebody is stupid, either. It’s just another way of pronouncing a word.

The (now) non-standard pronunciation of ‘aks’ is a recognizable feature of African American English, but its roots can be traced back throughout the evolution of the English language.

Similarly, the history of African American English can be traced back to a multitude of sources, both English and African in origin. Differences in the way people talk aren’t necessarily wrong, just different, and oftentimes there’s a a concrete historical precedent for it.

In fact, the pronounciation of the word ‘ask’ has a long and fascinating history in the English language. The two pronunciations were at one time both spoken in different dialects of English 1000 years ago in England. Consider an example from the Medieval text of Chaucer’s ‘The Knight’s Tale,’ when the knight Palemon says: “Yow loveris, axe I now this questioun.” It just happened that due to political circumstances, the people who spoke the dialect of English with the ‘ask’ pronunciation became the more dominant social group. And thus, ‘ask’ prevails as the standard today. So, lovers of language, I axe you to reconsider your thoughts and attitudes on the usuage of this non-standard pronunciation of ‘ask.’

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Larry Baker permalink
    July 17, 2012 7:48 am

    “I axed thou a question” is an odd example, since “thou” is in a subjective case, and “thee” is in the objective case properly for a direct object. It is only grammatically correct to say, “I axed thee a question.”

  2. Laura D. permalink
    October 21, 2012 8:28 pm

    I have a question: a colleague of mine told me a long time ago that this example of metathesis is actually due to the morphology of the African language that the majority of the slaves that were brought over spoke. Just like the stereotypical pronunciation of stop as “estop”, by native Spanish speakers is due to the fact that in Spanish, the construction ‘s’ + consonant simply does not exist at the beginning of a word. Is there validity to this?

    • Nicole Holliday permalink*
      October 23, 2012 10:48 pm

      Hi Laura. While the exact etymology is unclear, we believe that this metathesis is actually due to a change that happened in Old English around the 14th century. In this way, the older pronunciation of “ask” may have actually been “aks”, as it appears in modern AAE. A decent explanation can also be found here: Thanks for your comment!

    • Joana permalink
      December 4, 2013 3:09 pm

      Hello Laura! I find that there is some relation. As a Ghanaian, I pronounce the word as ‘aks’ and not ‘ask’. I think it is so in AAE because of the African descent.
      However, just to correct you, metathesis is a phonological process but not morphological.

  3. Joana permalink
    December 4, 2013 3:27 pm

    The ‘aks’ for ‘ask’ phenomenon really fascinates me. I believe that this phonological process (metathesis) goes a long way to show the relation between AAE and African languages. Come to think of it, I believe one can trace his or her descent to Africa from this process.
    Ghanaians are fond of such ‘mistakes’ (as some people claim) as well: ‘waps’ for ‘wasp’,etc. In learning English, it is seen to be one of the common ‘mistakes’ we make. I think this is because we do not have such clusters in our local languages. So, we pronounce the English word with the knowledge in our local languages.

    I believe, as Baugh (2000) says, AAE is not a wrong form but just an alternative of the English language.

  4. Melissa D. permalink*
    December 5, 2013 7:48 am

    When I was younger, peers in my elementary school classes would sometimes pronounce “ask” this way. My teachers, in their strong Jersey accents, would always make the “joke” about how the student wanted to “axe” them. Of course all of the students in the class would laugh. We were probably 8 years old and the idea of someone “threatening” a teacher with an axe was pretty funny (and sick?). Children are pretty ignorant, but it is the responsibility of parents and teachers to educate these children.
    The problem was that my teachers were making these “jokes” about a person’s language. How could they educate the children in their classroom if the were not educated? These teachers were completely unaware of the language prejudice in their own classrooms, caused by them. Instead of understanding the pronunciation as a metathesis, common in African American English speakers, students were just “poorly” pronouncing simple words.
    Unfortunately, these prejudices still exist in classrooms. After observing a classroom last year with many African American English speaking students, the teacher (who was a black AAE speaker) would criticize the students’ language in the same way, with the class laughing as my class did over 10 years ago. After 10 years, little progress has been in made in the classroom setting to understand these language prejudices, while so much attention has been drawn to bullying and hazing in the school setting.
    Articles like this and experiences I have had make it very clear our society still has a long way to go before we understand the prejudices around us and educate the ignorant to prevent it. Unfortunately, many people responsible for eliminating such ignorance are ignorant themselves.

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