30

We've recently moved from New Zealand to New York City, and have noticed that many people (most of whom have good English) pronounce "ask" as "aks". For example:

Could you please go aks her tomorrow?

Sure, I'll ax her! :-)

What's the origin/etymology of "aks"? It seems to be more common among African Americans, but it's definitely used by others too.

8
  • 1
    I had not heard this pronunciation until I moved from New Zealand to Australia, where I heard it from an Australian, an accountant if it matters, in a suburb of Melbourne. I've also heard it said by a middle-manager here in Bedfordshire, UK. On both occasions I assumed it was a speech impediment - but after reading @RegDwight's answer I won't in future be as quick to judge.
    – Ed Guiness
    Feb 10, 2011 at 15:08
  • 2
    I first encountered “ax” reading Hardy and Dickens — the both use it form time to time, iirc, as a feature of certain heavy rural accents/dialects. (West Country in Hardy; I can’t remember where it comes up in Dickens.) I was amazed when I found out that it still exists in plenty of dialects in real life, and not just rural English ones…
    – PLL
    Feb 10, 2011 at 16:35
  • It's common today in Ireland.
    – TRiG
    Jul 3, 2011 at 19:16
  • 2
    And in Futurama. Jul 7, 2011 at 17:43
  • I've also heard Newfoundlanders pronounce ask 'ax.'
    – JAM
    Apr 10, 2012 at 14:42

1 Answer 1

35

This phenomenon is called metathesis. I humbly direct you to my answer to a related question for details. Here, I will just note that aks goes back to Old English, where there were two versions of the verb, ascian and acsian. See this Language Log post:

As the [Oxford English Dictionary] explains, the verb form spelled "ax", and meaning "To call upon any one for information, or an answer", originated more than a thousand years ago in OE. ("Old English")[.]
[...]
The crucial bit [is] this:

Acsian, axian, survived in ax, down to nearly 1600 the regular literary form, and still used everywhere in midl. and south. dialects, though supplanted in standard English by ask, originally the northern form.

So, as a matter of fact, aks is not a speech error. It is a well-established feature of certain dialects.

16
  • 19
    Hearing aks makes me go nucular.
    – fortunate1
    Feb 10, 2011 at 14:58
  • 7
    @fortunate: that's a very revelant comment.
    – RegDwigнt
    Feb 10, 2011 at 15:00
  • 8
    @benhoyt: The spelling of wimmen has been uniformly changed to women, too. But spoken language is still primary. By the time you learned to read and to write, you were a native speaker already. So, when people came along and said, "you must write women with an O, not with an I", you didn't change your pronunciation.
    – RegDwigнt
    Feb 11, 2011 at 7:54
  • 10
    @ben: Your observation that it's now always spelled "ask" does not actually have a bearing on whether it's a speech error or a dialect feature. We all spell "often" with a "t" that many people never pronounce. Everyone spells "knight" with letters that are not pronounced. "February" is almost never pronounced with the first "r", and when I say "almost, already, palm" I do it without an "l". So, as the answer says, this is a feature of some dialects of English; the spelling is a separate issue. Oh, and if it were a speech error, the same people would pronounce "task" as "taks". They don't.
    – user19885
    Apr 9, 2012 at 23:13
  • 4
    @RoryAlsop: yes. Have you never heard that pronunciation?
    – Colin Fine
    Aug 22, 2012 at 15:51

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.