Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Ask vs. Axe

A few months back, my administrative assistant was offered a wonderful new job and as a consequence, the department hired a replacement.  The new assistant is a capable, hardworking young lady.  A few days ago I noticed that she tends to use the word /axe/, instead of /ask/.  

I had heard this usage a number of times in Baltimore, particularly among African-Americans.  I wondered, is this a mispronunciation?  Perhaps something like /nuclear/ vs. /nucular/?  A bit of research made me understand that /axe/ has a long history in the English language, and is not a mispronunciation.

Oxford dictionary notes that /ask/ is the descendant of /ascian/, which in Old English means to demand, to seek from.  The alternative form of /ascian/ is /axian/, or in short form, /axe/.  Oxford notes its use in Chaucer: "I axe, why the fyfte man Was nought housband to the Samaritan?" (Wife's Prologue 1386), and "a man that ... cometh for to axe him of mercy." (The Parson's Tale 1386)  The book The Complete Works of Goeffrey Chaucer includes 5 passages where the word /axing/ is used.  The word /axe/ appeared in the first complete English translation of the Bible in 1535 by Miles Coverdale, who wrote: "Axe and it shal be giuen you," and "he axed for wrytinge tables."

According to Random House, “In American English, the /axe/ pronunciation was originally dominant in New England. The popularity of this pronunciation faded in the North early in the 19th century as it became more common in the South. Today the pronunciation is perceived in the US as either Southern or African-American. /axe/ is still found frequently in the South, and is a characteristic of some speech communities as far north as New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Iowa.”

So /axe/ is a regional pronunciation, somewhat similar to the regional pronunciation variation of the word /idea/ and /idear/.


  1. Nice! I'd always thought of it as a mispronunciation.

  2. We have so many synonyms in English that sit in our dictionaries together just fine. This ultimately is a silly debate that, in America, has gotten wrapped up with race and questions of intelligence despite the fact that millions of English speakers world wide have been using "axe" along side "ask" since English was first developing and spread across the globe.