Ask vs. Ax and the Evolution of the English Language

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis, the election, and more, subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter.


In the LA Times today, John McWhorter explains why ax is so commonly used by blacks as a nonstandard pronunciation of ask. Long story short, there were several pronunciations of the word in Middle English, but by around the 16th century ask had become standard:

Going forward, “aks” was used primarily by uneducated people, including indentured servants, whom black slaves in America worked alongside and learned English from. So, “aks” is no more a “broken” form of “ask” than “fish” is a “broken” version of ye olde “fisk.” It’s just that “fisk” isn’t around anymore to remind us of how things used to be.

But even knowing that, we can’t help thinking that standard English, even if arbitrary, should be standard. Shouldn’t it be as simple to pick up the modern pronunciation of “ask” as it is to acquire a new slang word?.

….The first thing to understand is that, for black people, “ax” has a different meaning than “ask.” Words are more than sequences of letters, and “ax” is drunk in from childhood. “Ax” is a word indelibly associated not just with asking but with black people asking….”Ax,” then, is as integral a part of being a black American as are subtle aspects of carriage, demeanor, humor and religious practice. “Ax” is a gospel chord in the form of a word, a facet of black being — which is precisely why black people can both make fun of and also regularly use “ax,” even as college graduates.

I can’t think of anything in particular to say about this, but I figured that since I found it interesting, you might too. However, I’m curious about something that McWhorter doesn’t address: different forms of the word. It doesn’t seem like I ever hear axing or axed, only asking and asked. But obviously my experience is severely limited, so maybe those are just as common as ax. Anyone have any insight about that?

FACT:

Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and the wealthy wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2020 demands.

payment methods

FACT:

Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and the wealthy wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2020 demands.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate