“How Does this Make us Look?”

By Thomas Kochman - 12.07.2009

One of the features of being a member of a group is to feel implicated by what other members of the group do or say. Because of this, great social pressure is often brought to bear on those whose only “crime” is that their social behavior embarrasses those who set themselves up as standard bearers for the group. Nowhere is this clearer than in the brouhaha surrounding the pronunciation of “ask” as “axe”.

I am reminded of this again from just having seen “Precious”, where “Mo’Nique”, playing the welfare mother, uses the “aks” pronunciation several times, authentically, I might add, for the character she is portraying.

Why do I say “authentic?”

For the record, Old English had two pronunciations of that word: ascian (modern day “ask”) and acsian (modern day “axe”). Both forms were in use and distributed regionally throughout England with both pronunciations at different times finding their way into literary use.  Chaucer used the “axe” form in The Canterbury Tales, as did Tyndall in his 16th century translation of the Bible in the well known phrase, “for whosoever axeth receavith”

So how did ask and axe become class linked, not only for African Americans, but also for Southern whites? Read more »