An Aks to Grind: Ax-ing Questions About Non-Standard English

Every-so-often, a new meme will invade Facebook where the user reposts a snide one-liner about use of the word ax or aks, in lieu of ask, or insulting the use of seen without the auxiliary have as in I seen it, rather than I have seen it. It’s always easy to make fun of how others speak. But sometimes it’s nice to understand and appreciate it, too, without the condescension.

English has never for one moment stopped evolving. How it is developing and adapting in Wales is different than it is in Canada, Australia and Belize. However, it still works. People are using it to communicate. So, rather than dictate how it must be used, one could note how it is used.

Black English is often given credit for non-standard ax, especially by those who disdain its use. Black English does use the word, but research lands the credit elsewhere. Old English used 2 verbs interchangeably without issue: acsian and ascian. Later, these were shortened and became 3 variants: aks, ask, and ash. The last of which, dropped from the language.

Modern dialectal aks is as old as Old English acsian and was an accepted literary variant until c. 1600. (Online Etymology Dictionary)

Chaucer used axe in the Canterbury Tales, because the variant was still alive and good into the spread of English globalism. Pidgens, invented languages that blended elements from different parent languages for the purposes of trade, popped up all over the world thanks to the British Empire. Many African pidgens included the word: aks. All before 1600, when in England and then America, the trend landed squarely in the camp of ask, over aks. By then, many pidgens had evolved into creoles which are fully functioning mother tongues. This was especially true in the New World where enslaved peoples of many languages had the pidgens to unite them. These new creoles became the Jamaican Creole, Gullah [the Sea Island Creole], and many others. [The word for ask in Gullah? —aks. That is the correct word in their language. Gullah has a huge historic influence on Black English, and the pieces start to fall into place . . . ]

The whole argument reminds me of my college roommate from Salamanca, Spain that would sneer at how Mexican Spanish pronounced Mexico as /MEH-hee-ko/, rather than /MEK-see-ko/ as English does and as they do in Spain. He called it illiterate. But he was wrong to do so. When Spain foisted their language and culture upon the New World, they pronounced the x as /h/ as is still done in Mexico today. Later, Spain changed the way they pronounced the x to align with English, /ks/.

In both cases, what was deemed correct was changed by some, and not by some others a world away that still used a correct older form. Later, the ones that changed the rules, ignore their own usage history to condemn usage of the older form.

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