“I’m sorry. Did you mean to say you ‘asked‘ me a question? Because ‘axe‘ is something you chop wood with.”
Ever hear that one? There is a reason I ‘axe‘ this question of you.
We commonly hear that saying “axe” when you mean “ask” is bad grammar, is a sign of ignorance. Is this true? And what does the use of “axe” say about a person?
Conventionally, many people suppose that it is. After all, in English, the spelling of “ask” means to make an inquiry, and the spelling of “axe” means a sharp object used to chop things.
However, we are not dealing here with spelling, but with pronunciation, and—especially in English—these are two different worlds. Just axe yourself the following question:
How do I pronounce “Wednesday“?
How do I pronounce “nuclear“?
How do I pronounce “introduce“?
How do I pronounce “window“?
People pronounce things differently. You might be thinking, “well, you have to pronounce it like it sounds.” I sure hope not. Axe yourself how you pronounce the following words:
So if you’re thinking that a language should be sounded exactly how it sounds—well, you’re right, it should be, but no language is. The reason why is because speech patterns change faster than the written word. Oral culture evolves faster than written culture. In fact, only very recently, with the invention of the internet, is the written (or typed) word actually catching up with and redefining language like it never has before. These spellings we just listed—they are spellings of words English culture has traditionally pronounced in ways different than they have been spelled.
So what about “ask” and “axe”? After all, aren’t we saying a different word entirely, and creating confusion?
First of all, it never actually creates semantic confusion. It just happens to annoy a certain crowd. If I say “Let me axe you something,” you’re not thinking that I am going to cut you with something axe-shaped. No, I might just be irritated that your mouth doesn’t sound like my mouth. So it’s not a matter of confusion.
It’s a matter of metathesis
Metathesis is a type of phonological reconstruction, a way in which people say words in different ways. When we say words, sometimes we switch two sounds and say them in reverse. This is called “metathesis“. Sometimes an individual does this, sometimes an entire culture does. Sometimes it’s an error, as when I accidentally say “cavalry” instead of “calvary“, or “revelant” instead of “relevant“. Sometimes it is something an entire culture ends up doing because it becomes phonetically convenient, meaning that it becomes easier for our tongue to say. For example, half of Americans seem to say “nucular” instead of “nuclear“. For many Southerners, it’s easier on the tongue to say the former. Same thing applies with “foliage” being pronounced “foilage”.
In English, it’s easier for us to have /ks/ than /sk/, meaning that it is easier for many English speakers to pronounce the /k/ before the /s/. It’s just a more fluid order of words.
Here, try a little experiment. Try to say “ask” over and over again. No, I’m not trying get you to say a dirty word. What you will likely end up doing, if you’re not concentrating too hard, is start saying “axe” over and over again instead. And you may even end up saying “ass“, which many people also do, and there’s nothing wrong with that because we never really notice it. “Let me assewe a question.” I sometimes pronounce it like that. This pronunciation falls in between “ask” and “axe”. So you can see how people make that transition.
In fact, the standard English spelling of the word used to be “ax” or “acs” way back in the 1500s, as was the common pronunciation. Chaucer used “ax” in his writing, as did the Cloverdale Bible. If you read an original rendering of “The Wife’s Prologue” in Canterbury Tales, you’ll see the following: “I axe, why the fyfte man Was nought housband to the Samaritan?”. Yep, 700 years ago people would “axe” a question. Shakespeare, however, usedˈused the spelling of “ask”.
Although for a time both variations existed, at some point over the next 500 years, the pronunciation became more standardized as /ˈæsk/ (“ask”). In recent times this variation has only made a comeback, particularly among African American populations. It’s not a new phenomenon, and it is not particular to just one “segment of the population”. Many African American dialects, Southern American dialects, and Midland English dialects use it. Until the 1800s, New England dialects used it, until it migrated South, where it is often seen today. You might even see people from New Jersey use it too.
So saying “axe a question” is not an error, but a geographical variation. In a way, it’s a sign of intelligence, because people who use it are adapting their pronunciation to what is more palatable to the English tongue, or at least their region’s variation of it.
Indeed, the metathesis of “ask” and “axe” is a variation across geographic (and perhaps ethnic) regions is a systematic, predictable, rule-governed linguistic phenomenon.
- They systematically fit into the user’s conversation, and are understood by natives. That is the very reason why, when “we” catch people in the act of using one, we understand what they meant to say, meaning we are not confused, just pointing out a grammar feature “we” find as an error.
- Their use is predictable in various contexts, and we already know to expect the phenomena from speakers of various backgrounds, who use them consistently. Were it an error, it would be a slip that people make, not a repeated pattern among certain social groups and in certain conventions.
- It is governed by specific rules that it naturally follows in its use. Whenever the pronunciation is used, it is used in a specific context by specific people for specific reasons and only then.
The primary reason people think it’s an error is because it “looks” like an error if you don’t truly understand how language works. After all, people are pronouncing something other than how it is spelled. But language must always follow firstly the rules of how it is spoken, not how it is written. Dictionaries don’t make the rules, they record them, which then assists in standardizing them. But “standard” doesn’t mean “only right way”. It just means “conventional”. But, of course, conventional to who?
The other main reason many people object to it is because it is used mostly by lower class, typically less educated folks, most specifically African Americans. That’s it. The reasoning has been given that since less educated folks use it, or that because black people use it, it must be bad grammar, and not only bad grammar, but bad manners, and bad thinking. Thus it has been branded taboo. Prejudice calls for certain protocols of dress and language to be stigmatized in order to maintain a gap between those with and those without. This is one of those examples.
Use of the pronunciation “axe“ betrays not a lack of knowledge of grammar, but a lack of social prestige, thus why it is often taboo among circles which enjoy the luxury of high socio-economic status and the privileges that come with. And people who assume it is wrong to “axe” a question—I want to axe them if they understand the difference between prescriptive grammar and descriptive grammar. Don’t ask an English major; axe a linguist.
So should you use it? Well, I’ll give you a warning. See, it’s not incorrect grammar, but it is socially restricted grammar. In other words, there’s nothing wrong with you, but people won’t always get that, and thought it’s not your fault, some doors may be closed to you, and some eyes may be cast down at you. A guy could work out a brilliant equation to prove that a rocket is ready to fly, and an entire team of colleagues could nod in agreement, but the moment he says, “Got any more questions to axe me?”, we suddenly don’t trust him.
And this is why your teachers will be pressured to tell you it’s wrong. Their task is to prepare you for the future. They want doors to be open for you. So it’s safer to tell you it’s just bad grammar. And most school systems are run by white people.
It is, my friends, a Shibboleth. So while you’re ok to use it, know that if you want to broaden the places you can go in the world, use discretion. A job interview might be a poor place to use it. Once you’re in a place where you feel comfortable, and establish credibility, like the Cloverdale Bible, break it out if you want. Be yourself.
For further reading, this article.
Is there another grammar question you want to axe me about?