Few things stick out more in black American speech than the pronunciation of "ask" as "ax." And when I say that it "sticks out," I'm being polite.
Attitudes about Ebonics have evolved somewhat as hip hop has become America's favorite music. Even the strictest grammarian would have to agree that Kanye West's "Gold Digger" in standard English wouldn't be worth hearing. And Americans from Jesse Pinkman in "Breaking Bad" to Key and Peele get that it's OK to speak "hood" when you're among friends.
But "ax" is a special case. It's often the first thing even black people bring up as an example of bad grammar. Garrard McClendon, a black professor and talk show host, has titled a book "Aks or Ask: The African American Guide to Better English."
As a black linguist, I have come to expect that, during question sessions after any public talk I give on language, someone will ask: "What's with 'ax'?"
One answer a linguist can give is to cite history, pointing out how, in Old English, the word for "ask" swung randomly between ascian and acsian, and nobody batted an eye. But that answer never satisfies the audience. That was then, this is now, they suggest, and today, "ax" sounds ignorant. So why can't black people switch a couple of sounds around and stop saying it?
I want to try to answer that.
First, it's important to understand that, as English goes, "ax" is a perfectly normal thing to have happened to a word like "ask." Take the word "fish." It started as "fisk," with the same -sk ending that "ask" has. Over time, in some places people started saying "fisk" as "fiks," while in others they started saying "fisk" as "fish." After a while, "fish" won out over "fiks," and here we are today. The same thing happened with "mash." It started as "mask." Later some people were saying "maks" and others were saying "mash." "Mash" won.
With "ask," some people started saying "aks," and some started saying "ash." But this time, it wasn't "ash" that won out. Instead, for a while "aks" was doing pretty well. Even Chaucer used it in "The Canterbury Tales," in lines such as this one: "Yow loveres axe I now this questioun."
There is an element of chance in how words change over time, and we will never know why "aks" and "ash" lost out to "ask." All we know is that the people whose English was designated the standard happened to be among those who said "ask" instead of "aks" — and the rest is history.
Going forward, "aks" was used primarily by uneducated people, including indentured servants, whom black slaves in America worked alongside and learned English from. So, "aks" is no more a "broken" form of "ask" than "fish" is a "broken" version of ye olde "fisk." It's just that "fisk" isn't around anymore to remind us of how things used to be.
But even knowing that, we can't help thinking that standard English, even if arbitrary, should be standard. Shouldn't it be as simple to pick up the modern pronunciation of "ask" as it is to acquire a new slang word?
Here, then, is where the linguist breaks out the word "identity." The way people talk expresses their identity, we linguists say, tending to think such a statement should end the conversation. But it doesn't. A perfectly reasonable person might ask: Why not identify with proper language? Moreover, using the word "identity" makes the matter sound deliberate, while most black people's embrace of "ax" is not a conscious decision.
We need to offer a better explanation. Here's my try.
The first thing to understand is that, for black people, "ax" has a different meaning than "ask." Words are more than sequences of letters, and "ax" is drunk in from childhood. "Ax" is a word indelibly associated not just with asking but with black people asking. That sentiment alone is powerful enough to cut across conscious decisions about what is standard or proper.
"Ax," then, is as integral a part of being a black American as are subtle aspects of carriage, demeanor, humor and religious practice. "Ax" is a gospel chord in the form of a word, a facet of black being — which is precisely why black people can both make fun of and also regularly use "ax," even as college graduates.
Yet nothing can stop people from hearing "ax" as illiterate, which makes the word a small tragedy in its way. When a black speaker gets the most comfortable, the most articulate, the most herself — that is exactly when she is likely to slide in an "ax" for "ask." Immediately she sounds ignorant to any nonblack person who hears her, not to mention to quite a few black ones.
Yet I hope that my small contribution to the pro-axive literature might help some of us hear "ax" in a different way. The simple fact is that because "ax" is blackness, it has survived and will continue to.
John McWhorter teaches linguistics, American studies and Western civilization at Columbia University. His next book, "The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in any Language," comes out in April.