Ask vs. Ax and the Evolution of the English Language

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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?

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DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

without free and fair elections, a vigorous free press, and engaged citizens to reclaim power from those who abuse it.

In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily bluster—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

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