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Ax or Ask? again

April 5, 2010

In an earlier post we gave some background on the origins of ‘ask’ pronounced as ‘ax’.  We could argue that African American English (AAE)  has retained an earlier form of English.  No matter the origins or linguistic explanation for its ubiquitous pronunciation in AAE, people still have very strong reactions about the use of ‘ax’ (past tense: ‘axed’).

Check out a 2007 clip from Garrard McClendon, who wants African Americans to learn to wipe out ‘ax’ in their native dialects of English.

McClendon wants African Americans to stop speaking AAE and speak what he refers to as ‘proper english’.

This seems sound, especially if you believe that speaking mainstream English has positive ramifications.  But, we should also remember that AAE has it positives as well, and should be appreciated for its linguistic, social and cultural value (as noted by some of our greatest thinkers like James Baldwin and Toni Morrison). What do you think?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. francescah permalink
    April 6, 2010 4:37 am

    I think there are positive aspects to McClendon’s program but his approach is flawed. As McClendon and some of the teachers mention there are professional and social benefits to speaking Standard English. However, he doesn’t acknowledge the important cultural and historical aspects of what he refers to as “improper” speech. This is causing the students to belittle their own language and therefore their own culture. For example, the first girl who is interviewed refers to her speech as “slang” and says she does not speak “proper English.”
    I also think it is ironic that while McClendon is in the classroom he uses some features of the African American oral tradition but seems to lose any trace of it when speaking directly to the camera.

  2. Ryan permalink
    April 8, 2010 3:25 pm

    WOW, can you believe # 2 most search phrase when you start typing” why do black…” into the google search engine is “why do black people say ax instead of asks?”

  3. Mariel permalink
    May 2, 2010 10:19 pm

    He is wrong when he refers to AAE as bad grammar and “incorrect speech” instead of a distinct variety of English. Apparently his mission is to help African American children learn Standard English in order for the to have more chance to social upward mobility by eliminating AAE features from their speech so that they won’t be discriminated. Therefore, his intentions may be good but the way he expresses about AAE and the way he teaches “correct grammar” may have a negative influence in these people in terms of their cultural identity if they are told that their Language is wrong (instead of just a dialect or variety of American English).
    Also, I still don’t understand why saying aks or ax is so bad if one can perfectly understand what it means! Through its history English language has become and is still becoming less phonetic, meaning that pronunciation is differing from spelling. I can conclude from this is that what bothers mainstream America is not the way certain words are pronounced differently by African Americans, what bothers them are the speakers of the language and as a consequence they have been marginalized like other minority groups whose first language is not SAE.
    And I also don’t understand why the targetting towards African-Americans alone, when they aren’t the only ones who use AAE and not all African-Americans use it either!

    I don’t care if he has been a professor for 15 years, he needs a class on the history of English language urgently so that he learns how English has changed chronologically, geographically and culturally and that ain’t gonna stop!

  4. Jonathan M. (Language&Society) permalink
    November 1, 2010 4:28 pm

    I think it’s good that an African-American is working to make the speech of his fellow African Americans more “standard.” I agree with him when he says “when you go out on job interviews, people are gonna be looking at how you speak!” Overt prestige definitely plays a role here. Most likely the upper-class executives who are hiring someone would choose a person who speaks Standard English over a person who speaks a nonstandard dialect. In the past there have been efforts to change the speech of the African-American projects, to wipe out “deses,” “demses,” “dozes,” and “ain’t” in favor of “these,” “them,” “those,” and “isn’t” (New York One News, early 2000s).

    However, I don’t think that it’s possible to wipe out words/pronunciations such as “aks” and “ain’t” completely, especially if it’s being forced upon people in school. They might use the prestigious forms in school or on interviews, but may well slip back into their own dialects in informal settings.

    Also, I heard the teacher use ‘gonna’ in some sentences. If he’s saying that people shouldn’t say “aks,” then soon there would be no more room for “gonna,” “wanna,” et cetera. When certain forms are stigmatized, perhaps the expectation is for other forms to be stigmatized as well, and if these other forms become prescribed against, we may have to pay so much attention to our speech that there would be little room for the variation that makes sociolinguistics possible.

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