'Aks' Pronunciation Has Long History in English
Several readers have asked me about the pronunciation of "ask" as "aks." While this nonstandard, dialectical pronunciation might seem like newfangled usage, it's actually rooted in one of the oldest and most common elements of English: metathesis.
Metathesis is the process by which sounds, letters or syllables hop around and switch places in a word. Like frisky children told to line up by height, these restless linguistic elements just won't stay where they're supposed to.
In fact, some of our most common English words were formed by metathesis: "bird" was once "brid," "third" was "thridde," "curled" was "crulled," and "modern" was "modren."
Likewise, the original form of "ask" was the Old English "ascian," which developed the metathesized form "axian" or "axe." The first bible ever published in English, the Coverdale Bible of 1535, for instance, included this sentence from Matthew 7:7: "Axe and it shall be given you."
The pronunciations "ask" and "aks" coexisted until the 1800s. In England, "ax" or "aks" prevailed in England's south and Midlands, and in North America it was common in southern and Mid-Atlantic states. Today it's most common in African American English.
The mischievous imps of metathesis are at play in other American dialects as well. Rural speakers often switch the "r" and "e" in "pretty" and say "perty," or the "p" and "r" in "apron" and say "apern."
An interesting reversal of the "ask/aks" transposition is found in "task," which originated with the Latin "taxare," which meant "to feel, reproach, reckon."
Aptly enough, the metathesis pattern also created "pattern." "Pattern" comes from the word "patron," which in medieval times meant "a father-like figure who served as a model to be emulated."
During the 1500s, people started reversing the "r" and "o" sound in "patron" to pronounce it "pattern." By the early 1700s, "pattern" had become a separate word, with a meaning that retains the "model" connotation of "patron."
Today, metathesis is alive and well. Or should I say, well and alive? Many of us have occasionally fallen victim to metathesis ourselves, mispronouncing "intricate" as "intercate," "introvert" as "intervert," "prescription" as "perscription," or "cavalry" as "calvary."
Webster's Dictionary of English Usage reports that the respected public figures Edward R. Murrow, Gerald Ford and Nelson Rockefeller sometimes pronounced "integral" as "intergal." Hail fellows well met -- and well met-athesized!
Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. His book, "Mark My Words," is available for $9.99 on Amazon.com. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to WordGuy@aol.com or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, California, 90254.
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