December 16, 1999
Sam Sherwood wrote:
There is a guy in my office who has a heavy southern accent and he says "ax" instead of "ask". When questioned he claims it's a regional pronunciation (Mississippi area), but I don't understand this since it sounds to me more like a regional mispronunciation. There is also a man in my office from the Bahamas and he too says "ax." Can you explain?
Thank you for asking (aksing) this question.
While the pronunciation /aks/ for ask is not considered standard, it is a very common regional pronunciation with a long history. The Old English verb áscian underwent a normal linguistic process called metathesis sometime in the 14th century. Metathesis is what occurs when two sounds or syllables switch places in a word. This happens all the time in spoken language (think nuclear pronounced as /nukular/ and asterisk pronounced as /asteriks/).
Metathesis is usually a slip of the tongue, but (as in the cases of /asteriks/ and /nukular/) it can become a variant of the original word. This alternative version in Old English was axian or acsian, as in Chaucer's: "I axe, why the fyfte man Was nought housband to the Samaritan?" (Wife's Prologue 1386). Ascian and axian co-existed and evolved separately in various regions of England. The ascian version gives us the modern standard English ask, but the axian variant ax can still be found in England's Midland and Southern dialects.
In American English, the /aks/ pronunciation was originally dominant in New England. The popularity of this pronunciation faded in the North early in the 19th century as it became more common in the South. Today the pronunciation is perceived in the US as either Southern or African-American. Both of these perceptions underestimate the popularity of the form.
/aks/ is still found frequently in the South, and is a characteristic of some speech communities as far North as New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Iowa. It is one of the shared characteristics between African-American English and Southern dialects of American English. The wide distribution of speakers from these two groups accounts for the presence of the /aks/ pronunciation in Northern urban communities.
So in fact, your colleague is correct in calling /aks/ a regional pronunciation, one with a distribution that covers nearly half of the territory in the United States and England.
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