The Grammarphobia Blog

You axed for it!

Q: When I was growing up, I used to hear people in some African-American and Southern white communities pronounce “ask” as “ax.” Where does this come from?

A: The “ax” pronunciation isn’t limited to some African-Americans or Southern whites. I heard it when I was growing up in Iowa, from whites as well as blacks.

In a 19th-century English novel that I’m reading now, the Irish servants use it, and it’s still heard in parts of Britain. Today this pronunciation is considered nonstandard, but it wasn’t always so.

The verb entered Old English in the 8th century and had two basic forms, “ascian” and “acsian.” During the Middle English period (1100-1500), the latter form (“acsian”) became “axsian” and finally “ax” (or “axe”), which was the accepted written form until about 1600.

Chaucer, in The Parson’s Tale (1386), writes of “a man that … cometh for to axe him of mercy.” And in Miles Coverdale’s 1535 translation of the Bible, there are lines like “Axe and it shal be giuen you,” and “he axed for wrytinge tables.”

In the early 17th century, “ask” (which had been lurking in the background) replaced “ax.”

Though the spelling changed and the consonant sounds were switched in standard English, the old pronunciation survived in some parts of England.

The “ax” version is still heard in the Midland and Southern dialects, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. And it’s also heard in the US, as we know.

Some have speculated that perhaps the earlier “ax” was somehow passed on to slaves (which could help explain why it survived among blacks). But there’s no evidence to support that theory. And many whites use the pronunciation too.

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