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Is 'Aks a Question' Proper English?

Pronouncing "ask" as "aks" has a longer history than you might think. Chaucer spelled it "axe."

By
Samantha Enslen, read by Mignon Fogarty,
books that look old enough to contain the "aks" spelling of "ask"

Today, we have a tidbit about the word that’s spelled A-S-K. You’ll usually hear this pronounced “ask”—but sometimes, you’ll hear it pronounced as “aks,” with the “s” and the “k” sounds transposed. 

Some people can get all agitated when they hear the “aks” pronunciation. They might be surprised to hear that although it isn’t considered standard English, the “aks” version actually has a long and storied history that extends back through nearly a thousand years of the English language.

Here’s the scoop.

The word “ask” comes from the Proto-Germanic word “aiskōan,” which evolved into the Old English word “ascian.” From what we can tell, these words were probably pronounced with an S-K sound.

The oldest printed citations indicate 'ask' was pronounced like 'aks' or 'axe.'

However, the earliest references to these words that we can find in print reveal something different: a K-S sound. For example, the earliest citation for this word in the Oxford English Dictionary is spelled A-C-S-O-D-E. The second is spelled A-X-O-D-E. Both indicate the “ks” pronunciation.

Based on these citations (and many others), it seems that during the time when Old English was spoken—from about 500 to 1100 AD—the “aks” pronunciation ruled the land. The “ask” version still appeared, but not nearly as much. And the use of “aks” continued steadily through the periods when Middle English and Early Modern English were spoken—that is, all the way up through the 1500s.

In fact, we find it in Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” and in William Tyndale’s translation of the bible into Early Modern English. Both of these landmark documents use the spelling “axe”—A-X-E. 

During this same time, a third variation of the word started popping up in print—one with more of an “ash” pronunciation. 

(If this seems odd, remember that back in the day, spelling wasn’t particularly standardized. The small subset of the population who could read and write spelled out words phonetically. Dictionaries literally didn’t exist yet, so there were no references to guide people on correct and incorrect spelling.)

In any case, over time, something shifted. Speakers started moving from the K-S sound back to the S-K sound—the one used way back in the Proto-Germanic “aiskōan.” And they completely dropped the “ash” version. That change is reflected in the King James Bible, published in 1611, and Shakespeare’s plays, which were written in the late 1500s and early 1600s. 

Why did this change happen? Why did the “ask” pronunciation win the day?

We’ll never quite know. As linguistics professor John McWhorter points out, “the people whose English was designated the standard happened to be among those who said ‘ask’ instead of ‘aks’—and the rest is history.”

Today, the 'ask' pronunciation is Standard English, but 'aks' survives in some dialects.

Today, the “ask” version is still considered standard. But before you get up in arms about someone saying “aks,” remember that this pronunciation is an accepted part of some modern dialects and has a long and rich history in English—by the likes of Chaucer, no less. And at the rate our language is changing today, it may well come back around.

Samantha Enslen runs Dragonfly Editorial. You can find her at dragonflyeditorial.com or @DragonflyEdit.

Sources

McWhorter, John. The ‘ax’ versus ‘ask’ question. Los Angeles Times, January 19, 2014 (accessed August 23, 2019). 

Meraji, Shereen Marisol. Why Chaucer said 'ax' instead of 'ask,' and why some still do. NPR, December 3, 2013 (accessed August 23, 2019). 

Owen, Jonathon. The Taxing Etymology of ‘Ask.’ Arrant Pedantry, March 28, 2016 (accessed August 23, 2019). 

Oxford English Dictionary, online edition. Oxford University Press. Ask (subscription required, accessed August 23, 2019).

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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