Teacher and artist Sunn M’Cheaux posted on social media about ‘linguicism’ after a reader asked him about the word ‘axe’, saying: ‘Why did we struggle to say “ask”? Like when I was little, I always said “axe”. As if I couldn’t say the word correctly.
at M’Cheaux response contradicts the common idea that “ax” (also spelled “aks”) is incorrect: “ax” is not a mispronunciation of “ask” but an alternative pronunciation. This is similar to how people might pronounce “economics” differently as “eck-onomics” or “eek-onomics”, for example. None of these pronunciations are wrong. They are just different.
Linguicism is an idea coined by human rights activist and linguist Tove Skutnabb-Kangas to describe discrimination based on language or dialect. The prejudice around “aks” is an example of linguicism.
Decades of research show that the idea that any variation from standard English is incorrect (or, worse, unprofessional or uneducated) is a smokescreen for prejudice. Linguicism can have serious consequences by aggravating existing socio-economic and racial inequalities.
Pegging “ax” as a mark of laziness or ignorance assumes that saying “aks” is easier than saying “ask”. If that were the case, we would hear – and we never hear – “desk”, “flask” and “pesky” pronounced “deks”, “flaks” and “peksy”.
The “s” and “k” being interchanged in “aks” and “ask” is an example of what linguists call metathesis – a process that is very common. For example, wasp was once pronounced “waps”, but the former has now become the reference word. Many of the pronunciations deplored as “false” are actually just examples of language switching.
“Aks” has its origins in Old English and Germanic over a millennium ago, when it was a formal written form. In the first English Bible – the Coverdale Bible, from 1535 – Matthew 7:7 was written as “An ax and it will be given to you”, with royal approval.
Beyond written English, “aks” was also the typical pronunciation in southern England and the Midlands. “Ask”, meanwhile, was more common in the north and it was the latter that became the standard pronunciation.
In North America, “aks” (or “ax”) was widely used in New England and the southern and central states. By the late 19th century, however, it had become stereotyped as exclusive to African American English, in which it remains prevalent. American linguist John McWhorter considers it “an integral part of being a black American”.
Today, “aks” is also found in British varieties of English, including multicultural London English. This dialect, spoken mainly by people from ethnic minorities, was born from the contact between different dialects of English and immigrant languages, including Caribbean creoles, such as Jamaican Creole.
London’s multicultural English was first referred to in the media pejoratively as ‘Jafaican’. This label erroneously reduced the dialect to something imitated or used inauthentically.
Other languages have, of course, influenced London’s multicultural English. But the English language has been in a constant state of flux for millennia precisely because of contact with other languages. When we talk about “salad”, “beef” or “government”, we are not imitating French, despite the French origin of these words. They simply became English words. Similarly, multicultural London English is a fully formed dialect in its own right and “aks”, like any other pronunciation in this and other English dialects, is in no way wrong.
Accents or dialects have no logical or scientific claim to “accuracy”. Instead, any prestige they might boast stems from being talked about by high profile groups.
A lot of people are now waving their finger at the word “isn’t” or people dropping the “g”, rendering words like “running” as “runnin'”, and “jumping” as “jumpin'”. In 2020, UK Home Secretary Priti Patel bore the brunt of this misguided criticism, when journalist Alastair Campbell tweeted: “I don’t want a Home Secretary who can’t pronounce a G to the end of a word.
Criticisms of the “dropping g” exist despite the pronunciation’s origins in Middle English, and not to mention the fact that up until the 20th century the British upper classes also spoke this way. This was satirized in a 2003 episode of the British comedy series Absolutely Fabulous, titled Huntin’, fishin’ and shootin’.
Now that “dropping g” is stereotyped as working class, however, it is stigmatized as a mistake. Research shows that even unintentional language biases against immigrant, non-standard and regional dialects have prevented generations of children from succeeding in school and, of course, beyond.
School children who naturally say “aks” (or any other form of non-standard English) are charged with the added burden of distinguishing between the way they speak and the way they are expected to write. Conversely, no such barriers are encountered by children who grow up speaking standard English at home, which may further reinforce inequalities. These children are already advantaged in other ways because they tend to belong to high-status groups.
The way we speak has real implications for how we are perceived. Research in the South East of England has found that young adults from working class or minority ethnic backgrounds tend to be judged to be less intelligent than others – a bias based solely on how they express themselves . The effect was compounded if the person was from Essex or London, or even if they were thought to have an accent from those places.
The example of “aks” perfectly demonstrates the absurdity, the baselessness and, above all, the pernicious impact of considering any form of English as “correct”. Accent bias and linguicism is a reframing of bias towards lower status groups who simply speak differently.