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Why “Aks”?

The Ask vs. Aks fuss, which is really only a fuss on the Ask side of things, offers a great symbol for what You Dare To Ask is all about.

Grammar snobs fret over a pronunciation they see as ignorant, and advise on what is acceptable in proper English. Aks utterers keep on using it and go about their business.

That is at the heart of You Dare to Ask and our presentations and programs nationwide: bridging a vast disconnect. In this case, between two sides in which one is unaware that the other doesn’t know or care there are two sides.

We live in the most conjoined society ever, even as we seem separated at birth. Despite all the smartphones, iPads, texting, friending, liking and video chats, our knowledge, appreciation and awareness of each other seems more atomic than ever.

In fact, aside from quantum mechanics, cross-cultural differences offer us perhaps the biggest testament to the adage that things are not always as they appear.

Take “aks.” Is it possible to know too much for your own good? Possibly.

Aks was just all right with folks during the Middle English period. It was good enough for the “Father of English literature,” Chaucer, in his late 14th-century magnum opus The Canterbury Tales, which includes such lines as “I axe, why the fyfte man Was nought housband to the Samaritan?” and “Yow loveres axe I now this questioun.”

For centuries, Ask and Aks got along great, and both forms were acceptable. That is, until around 1600, when the hoity-toities decided Aks didn’t cut it.

Waving a magic wand to shore up one pronunciation didn’t tear down the other, however. As we wrote in our syndicated “Dare to Ask” column:

“Aks was the form most commonly used in the dialect of English that slaves were exposed to,” said Sandra Wilde, professor of curriculum and instruction at Portland State University, who researched the issue for her book ‘What’s a Schwa Sound Anyway? A Holistic Guide to Phonetics, Phonics, and Spelling.’

“It’s the nature of language to change, but one reason black English has persisted has to do with social separation. . . . You speak like the people you hang with – and there is still a fair degree of social separation in our culture based on race.”

So “aks” really isn’t “worse” or “lazier,” it’s just that some people retained this older version, she said. In fact, one reason for African-American Vernacular English (Ebonics) is that people who’ve been marginalized often hold onto language to retain their identity.

Our users, never afraid to speak up, have debated the merits of Aks as well:

(It’s) a small mix of dialect with a lot of ignorance. The same reason a lot of (mostly) white people come to my job and “ask” about inkjet “cartilages.” — Brad, 33, black, Winchester, Va.

As long as people understand what we are saying, it doesn’t matter how we say it. — Jalissa and Charles, both 18, Chicago

I wonder this myself and am not proud. Speak proper English, my fellow Afro-Americans! — Cliff, 33, black, San Francisco

Not everyone pronounces words like Caucasians do, and it’s not right to expect them to. There are differences among us, including family rearing, foods, clothing styles, hairstyles, etc. Why would speech pattern be any different? — Amber, 27, black, Raleigh, N.C.

Ultimately, it’s the issue of identity that seems most at play.

John McWhorter, an associate professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and a linguistics expert, has written about the phenomenon of people talking a certain way primarily to express who they are – perhaps even unbeknownst to themselves.

In an LA. Times essay, he noted that for black people, Aks just has a different meaning than Ask:

“Words are more than sequences of letters, and ‘ax’ is drunk in from childhood,” he writes. ” ‘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.

“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.”

So there you have it, and here we are.

You Dare To Ask is about helping break down the divide so embodied in Ask vs. Aks. If people see what others are willing to discuss and admit, and then feel safe to let down their own guard, perhaps they’ll make a post and learn about their differences. We have no other goal than that. If we get people talking, we’ve done our job.

Asking is the starting point of it all, so grammar-baiting folks with a much-loved, much-hated, much-misunderstood version of the word’s pronunciation seems appropriate.

After all, what if we decide to Aks, and discover that all the questions we have about the world haven’t been answered yet?

–Phillip Milano