The Grammarphobia Blog

How classy is your speech?

Q: Did I hear Pat suggest on WNYC that there are no longer any class distinctions in American speech? I was born in Egypt and have an Ivy League education. People meeting me for the first time are shocked that I speak “white.” I have never met Pat, but I can tell from her voice that she is white and from a middle-class background in the Northwest.

A: We’re sorry if anything Pat said on the air gave the impression that speech differences don’t exist to some degree among races, nationalities, and social classes in the US.

They certainly do. And differences in regional speech are becoming, if anything, more pronounced.

We’ve had many, many items on the blog about regional, idiomatic, or colloquial English, including postings in 2010, 2009, and 2008.

But not every pronunciation identified with a region or racial group is limited to that group.

The AX pronunciation of “ask,” for example, isn’t limited to some African-Americans or Southern whites, as many people believe. Pat heard it when she was growing up in Iowa, from whites as well as blacks.

As we say in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths, the AX pronunciation is heard across the country, across racial lines, and even across the Atlantic.

In fact, the verb “ask” was spelled “ax” or “axe” for hundreds of years. Chaucer, in the “Pardoner’s Tale” (1386), writes of a man who “cometh for to axe him of mercy.”

If you’d like to read more about this, check out our “You axed for it!”  posting.

One correction, however. You write that you could tell from Pat’s voice that she “is white and from a middle-class background in the Northwest.”

Pat is white, but she’s from a working-class background in Iowa (the Midwest). She was of the first generation in her family to go to college.

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