LINGUIST List 7.1048

Fri Jul 19 1996

Sum: /aks/ and /akst/ in AAVE

Editor for this issue: Ann Dizdar <>


  • <>, 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 Town: 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."