LINGUIST List 7.1048

Fri Jul 19 1996

Sum: /aks/ and /akst/ in AAVE

Editor for this issue: Ann Dizdar <>


  1. <>, Summary: /aks/ and /akst/ in AAVE

Message 1: Summary: /aks/ and /akst/ in AAVE

Date: Thu, 18 Jul 1996 17:24:01 PDT
From: <> <>
Subject: Summary: /aks/ and /akst/ in AAVE

Back in January I posed a question (excerpted below) to which I got a
wonderful range of replies for which I am very grateful. As a summary
I'm posting here the relevant section of the book I'm in the process
of writing for teachers. (Please don't circulate beyond this listserv
without permission.) The book is to be titled "What's a schwa sound
anyway, and why should I care?" and will be published by Heinemann in
the spring of 1997. Thanks to all those who I didn't have room to
quote here; all the responses were extremely helpful. (For those of
you I did quote, let me know if I got your affiliation wrong - I was
in some cases deducing from your e-mail address.

Sandra Wilde
Portland State University (Oregon)
- --------------------------------------------------------
Ask vs. "aks": a case study
 In thinking about language variation, I found myself wondering
about a particular feature that I've often heard in the speech of
African Americans, the pronunciations /aks/ and /akst/ (sometimes
represented as ax and axed) for ask and asked respectively. I was
familiar with the process of metathesis, a reversing of the order of
two sounds as when children say "pasghetti" for spaghetti. But I
wasn't sure why this particular pattern occurred in Black English and
whether it occurred in other words. I was also aware that these
pronunciations are somewhat stigmatized by those who consider Black
English to be inferior to "standard English." So I went to some
experts. David Pesetsky, a linguist at MIT, told me about a computer
listserve called the Linguist List, and I posted the following
question there:
 My question is about the African American use of /aks/
 and /akst/ for "ask" and "asked." Does this phenomenon
 occur only on this word? What's the reason it occurs?
 (E.g., is it easier to pronounce?)
I received a couple of dozen fascinating responses that I've excerpted
here. First, some respondents discussed issues of ease of
pronunciation and metathesis. Alain Thomas, at the University of
Guelph in Canada, said, "Yes, /akst/ is easier to pronounce than
/askt/ because of the difficulty of uttering the /kt/ cluster in
word-final position (both are voiceless stops). . . . Although /aks/
is just as easy to pronounce as /ask/, I suspect the former is used
for reasons of coherence"; that is, once you're saying axed for the
past tense, it's logical to say ax for the present tense. He also
pointed out that a number of present- day English words have
metathesized from a different form in Old English or Middle English,
such as frist turning into first and wapse into wasp. Alice Faber at
Yale pointed out that changing /sk/ to /ks/ isn't a general feature of
AAVE phonology; "it's specific to this word. In other words ending in
sk, the k tends to be lost, so that desk, for example, would tend to
be pronounced /dxs/." Jan Tent at the University of the South Pacific
in Fiji, in an interesting digression, talked about the role of
metathesis in slips of the pen and spoonerisms. She shared the
following anecdote:
 I enjoy making up Spoonerisms. Many years ago I ordered
 a sandwich at the Staff Club at the university I was
 teaching at. I asked for a sandwich with "boast reef
 and pustard mickles". The lady at the counter didn't
 bat an eyelid and proceeded to make just what I wanted.
 The next day she asked me if I wanted the same "boast
 reef and pustard mickles". I recently went back to the
 staff club after an absence of five years and she was
 still there. She said, "Do you want a boast reef and
 pustard mickles sandwich?" She said this had become the
 standard way of referring to "roast beef" and "mustard
 pickles" among the staff of the club.
If a pattern of changing /sk/ to /ks/ isn't what's going on, then what
is? Several linguists responded that, in the words of Gillian Sankoff
from the University of Pennsylvania,
 the Oxford English Dictionary . . . tells us that Old
 English had two forms, acsian and ascian, the former
 being the literary standard until about 1600, when the
 latter gained the imprimatur of being the high style
 variant. Specialists in AAVE agree that current African
 Americans who use /aks/ have inherited this as the base
 form of the verb. 
Some further comments came from Raj Mesthrie at the University of Cape
 Aks is I believe alive and well in parts of Britain and
 elsewhere in the world (e.g. my native dialect of South
 African Indian English, where it co-exists with the
 standard form ask). The Old English form is acsian
 (suggesting an antecedent of aks); Middle English had
 axian and I believe at least in the midlands of England
 aks is a variant.
Apparently, then, both ask and aks have been around for a long
time. Why did one rather than the other turn up in Black English, and
why is aks stigmatized? Mary Niepokuj at Purdue commented:
 I'm not absolutely sure how the word entered African
 American English as /aks/; my guess (but it's just a
 guess) might be that the form /aks/ was the form most
 commonly used in the dialect of English to which the
 slaves were originally exposed, and it's persisted in
 African American English for the same sociolinguistic
 reasons that other features persist. I'd be inclined to
 treat it as a retention rather than as an innovation in
 African American English.
Mikael Parkvall from Stockholm commented that /aks/ is also common in
the English of the West Indies. Sherri Condon at the Universite des
Acadiens (University of Southwestern Louisiana) spoke to the issue of
prestige; "the /ask/ order was the one used in varieties that
eventually acquired prestige, so it became the standard." She also
used a nice analogy for talking about the assigning of higher status
to one version of a language than another:
 I've found it very effective to work with the analogy
 that language is a living thing. Then we can observe
 the similarities between the variation in living things
 and the variation in language. The parallels are many
 and are illuminating, plus it clarifies nicely the
 difference between a descriptive approach and one which
 imposes a value system by treating one variety as
 privileged. How would a biologist respond if you asked
 whether Crustaceans or Arthropods were better?
 I think the implications of the case of aks for educators are quite
simple; this is a single word that plays only the tiniest of roles in
the emerging literacy of African American children. In reading,
context will make it clear that ask says /aks/, and in spelling, the
African American child who writes AXT is not much further from asked
than the Anglo child who writes AST (which reflects her usual
pronunciation); both of them need to learn that the word is spelled in
a way that reflects the meaning units ask and -ed.
 I learned a tremendous amount from the e-mail exchange about aks
and akst, and realize now how language, even for someone with some
background in linguistics, can be far more complex than we
realize. What I had thought might be a simple phonetic shift was
actually the remnant of a rich history traceable back to Old English
with further roots in the history of slavery that is part of the past
of most African Americans. It also reminded me once again of how
valuable it is to increase our knowledge about language whenever
possible, which is easier than ever in these days of computer
resources. I'd like to close this discussion with what seems to be an
apropos maxim from Christ's sermon on the Mount in Miles Coverdale's
Bible, 1535 (supplied to me by Alain Thomas): "Axe and it shal be
giuen you."
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