Sunday, March 20, 2011

Ask: Past, Present, and Future Perspective

Some time ago, a correspondent asked about the varied pronunciations for the word ask. "Why do people say axe instead of ask?" I was not sure how to respond; this query goes beyond my field of expertise. Finally I did some exploring, accessing a new book on language variation and several excellent websites (see links and references). What I found was interesting and surprising. Below, I discuss only the theory that appears to be the least speculative, but keep in mind that scholars are still investigating this topic.

(Note: Letters inside slash marks indicate the pronunciation of a word. In student-friendly terms, the pronunciation for cup would be shown as /kup/, for example.)

This question is relevant to Vocabulogic because the underlying query is whether or not ask pronounced /aks/ is even a word. The question seems to be a popular one, too: When I entered the search term "pronounce ask" I got 4, 790,000 results from Google.  On the first page of results were the following headlines, among others:
  • "I axe you, why can't Blacks pronounce the word ask?"
  • "Why can't some people pronounce ask properly?" 

Some headlines and/or related comments were not kind. Language indexes all kinds of histories, practices, and stereotypes; this can evoke strong feelings, often nourished by misinformation. 

The pronunciation /aks/ might be discussed as a nonstandardized alternative for /ask/. It is not slang. We can examine this phenomenon through three lenses: the past, the present, and the future.

The word ask flows from old Germanic roots. Various  forerunners of ask were used by Anglo-Saxon writers (a form of Germanic) during the period known as Old English. Anglo-Saxon writers preferred to begin their word for ask with sounds similar to /aks/. Two different forms of the word appeared in Beowulf, ācsian and āxian, each one representing the pronunciation more similar to the modern-day /aks/. This epic poem dates to about the eighth century, but the only known print was made between 1000-1100 (dates are debated).

About 700 years ago, during Middle English, Chaucer included three different spellings for the word in Canterbury Tales. Here is one example, with the axe-variant:

Axe not why : for tho' thou axe me
I wol not tellen goddes privetee.
(Chaucer, Miller's Tale, v3557)

In American history, /aks/ was fairly common in New England and in the South, across cultures. Both pronunciations were used, but at some point /ask/ was standardized.

Today, if we say /aks/ for the word spelled ask we are reversing two adjacent sounds. This is called metathesis, an alteration in the normal sequence of elements, especially sounds (Crystal, 1995, p. 455).  This phenomenon occurs more frequently in words with unusual sound structure. We frequently hear neighboring sounds reversed in nuclear, jewelry, and realtor. Reversal of sounds in ask might be intuitive: There is some thought that it is mechanically easier to articulate /aks/ compared to /ask/.

At present, the pronunciation /aks/ for ask is heard across numerous dialects. Professors Anne Charity Hudley and Christine Mallinson (2011) explain it thus:
While the pronunciation of ask as axe is considered to be a nonstandardized pronunciation today, it is nevertheless very common. Many African Americans pronounce ask as axe, as do many speakers in the South, in Appalachia, in other pockets of the United States, in the Caribbean, and in parts of the United Kingdom. Part of the reason that this pronunciation is almost instantly noticed when it is used by African Americans is because it has come to be viewed as a stereotyped feature of African American English. (p. 80)
Peering into the future involves theory-driven conjecture. In The Story of Human Language, linguist John McWhorter (2004) hypothesized that within about 200 years the majority of Americans will say /aks/ for ask. Why? He suggested that saying /ks/ is easier, mechanically. Consider how easily we say words like fox, box, six, mix, wax, tax. One must work harder to articulate the final sounds /sk/ as in ask, desk, and mask. It may be easier to say /aks/ because after the vowel, we start at the back of the mouth for the /k/ sound and move to the front for /s/, whereas we must move backward in the mouth, from /s/ to /k/ when we say /ask/. Notice, too, there are not many words that end with the sound /sk/; I can think of ask, mask, task, brisk, desk, tusk, musk. It becomes even harder to say these words in plural form: Try articulating desks three times. It is true that if we make plural the words that end with /k/ we find many more words ending with /ks/, as in tracks, blocks, tricks, decks, ducks, likes, bakes, etc. But is that comparable? After all, there is a morpheme barrier between the base word and the final plural marker, -s. This morpheme barrier provides a cognitive clue that aides with speech, yes? 

Educational implications: Through discussion, educators can illuminate language as a living, morphing entity and a part of our identity. Hopefully, these insights will help older students and beginning teachers appreciate and understand the rich history and the broad diversity of language. Anne Charity Hudley and Christine Mallinson (2011) provide several more essential implications for teachers:
When working with African American English-speaking students who may not be confident in their use of standardized English and who may be engaging in verbal behaviors that vary from the language patterns that are expected to be used in school settings, it is important not to assume that variation in student's communication patterns signals low intelligence, uncooperativeness, or hostility. Rather, students may be using features of African American English to assert their identity. Students gain confidence and are able to enjoy academic and social success when they know and recognize academic English forms and when they recognize and value the language patterns they bring with them to school. (p. 100)


Web-based sources:

Read Axing for trouble: Beowulf and metathesis at Stæfcræft & Vyākaraṇ, where linguist Benjamin Slade provides excerpts from the original texts of Beowulf and Canterbury Tales. 

Read The Atlantic, where Ta-Nehisi, senior editor for the journal, discusses conversate and /aks/ with Jesse Sheidlower, editor for Oxford Dictionaries.

Read Karen Nakumura's brief post at Photoethnography.

Listen to a podcast at With Good Reason, where several experts discuss "Spoken Soul: Black English in the Classroom" (the pronunciation of ask is addressed about 10 minutes into the podcast by linguist Anne Charity Hudley).

For a student-friendly story of ask, read Words at Random: The Maven’s Word of the Day.   

For more on language variation in general, see the prior post: Dialect, Slang, Jargon, and Register. 


Charity Hudley, A. H. & Mallinson, C. (2011). Understanding English Language Variation in US Schools. Teachers College Press: New York.

Crystal, D. (1995). The Cambridge encyclopedia of the English language. Cambridge University Press.

McWhorter, J. (2004). The great courses: Social sciences: The story of human language (audio lectures). The Teaching Company.


  1. Mark Hansen3/21/2011

    Good information. I have also wondered about the prevalence of /aks/ for ask. There is probably more to it, but this is something.

  2. Mark, right you are, there is more to it, but I avoided areas that were hotly debated, speculative, or simply beyond my scope of understanding.


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