Who uses this item (in this way)? Does its use correlate with: region, social class, age, gender, ethnicity, race, or other factors? How strong are these correlations?
The use of ‘ax’ in place of ‘ask’ is most often done by speakers of African-American English (AAE), also referred to as Ebonics. Actually, AAE has been labelled by many different names, but it is a linguistic style with its own structure and language patterns (Tamasi & Antieau, 2015). Initially, in the United States, the use of ‘ax’ was associated with African Americans living primarily in the Southern United States, and who were descendants of former slaves, where AAE originated. As these individuals and families migrated out of the South into other areas of the nation, AAE lost some of its geographical roots and became more associated with race, particularly blacks. Unfortunately, because of the circumstances surrounding the speakers who used ‘ax’, usage became associated with lower class, uneducated individuals within the African-American community (Tamasi & Antieau, 2015).

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The correlation between the use of ‘ax’ and African Americans is very strong. One writer suggests that the use of ‘ax’ is an integral part of being black (McWhorter, 2004). While many educators, especially some vocal black educators, would like to eradicate the word, it is strongly bound up with black culture and language (Meraji, 2013). It continues to be passed along by AAE speakers, who often know when to use it and when not to use it. Since it is so strongly bound up in African-American culture, it is highly unlikely that the use of ‘ax’ will ever stop completely.

What is the history of the item? When was its first recorded use? Is its use increasing or was it used more at some times in the past than it is now?
The use of ‘ax’, or some variant of it, has been around for a long time, at least a thousand years according to one source (Meraji, 2013). The word was derived from an Old English verb, “acsian’, and used in place of the word ‘ask’ in some publications. Its first recorded use may have been in the first translation of the Bible into the English language – The Coverdale Bible. Interestingly, the King James Bible did not use the word ‘ax’; it used ‘ask’, as did Shakespeare in his writing of plays and sonnets. It seems that even then the use of ‘ax’ occurred more in the literature for the working classes than for the educated professional classes, but it was not a mark of the lack of education or of being lower class. Its use then was more widespread than it is today (Meraji, 2013).

Eventually, the word ‘ask’ won the battle and became the most widely used form for asking a question. However, when the Southern landowners started purchasing slaves to work their land in the 18th century, they paired the slaves with indentured servants who were often speakers of Old English. Since the African slaves could not speak American English, nor did they often have anyone who could speak their African language or dialect, they started learning and using a form of Old English mixed with their own words and meanings and developed what became African-American English (Tamasi & Antieau, 2015).

What eventually developed was a linguistic variety that sprung up from the history and experiences of Africans and African-Americans which symbolized their community – past, present and future. The language, complete with grammar structure, vocabulary and syntax, was the linguistic outcome of the social and cultural experiences of slaves as they settled and migrated within America. AAE came to identify them; it was who they were (Tamasi & Antieau, 2015).

What, if anything, do prescriptive grammars say about this item?
Prescriptive grammars, such as Standard American English, would relegate AAE and the use of ‘ax’ to a non-standard category of the English language. It is not appropriate for public speaking, resumes distributed by job seekers or conversing in most situations where there is a mix of cultural groups represented. In fact, many linguists would encourage what is called code switching – the practice of interchanging ‘ax’ and ‘ask’ depending on the setting and the group. John Rickford, a linguist at Stanford University, suggests that there is nothing technically wrong with using ‘ax’, but it is not considered to be mainstream English by most language experts (Rickford, 2000). Most African Americans make use of code switching and use both ‘ax’ and ‘ask’ depending on their audience.

It should be pointed out, however, that AAE is a linguistic system with its own grammar, vocabulary and speaking style. In some cases, its structure is more complex than Standard American English, but it is not recognized as a being equal with it. AAE is still considered a linguistic variety assembled by a specific group of people to suit their language needs (Tamasi & Antieau, 2015).

Who has negative reactions to this item? How can one explain these reactions? Can you find evidence of this item functioning as a shibboleth? Could negative attitudes toward the item be characterized as stigmatization? Could the negative reactions be related to any kind of prejudice or discrimination against a particular group, or are they more a matter of personal taste?

Language experts, or those who believe they are, may be the most vocal group of negative reactors to the use of ‘ax’ in place of ‘ask’. However, the most surprising group of with negative reactions is black educators and black professionals. They argue that the use of ‘ax’ continues to put African Americas in a bad light and presents them as uneducated, lower-class people. When blacks continue to use the word, they are reinforcing that image and giving their critics ammunition against the African-American community (McClendon, 2007).

The negative reactions of professionals and language experts stem from the use of non-standard English. The argument many of these people use is that using the word ‘ax’ is poor English, and its continued use further corrupts the language and fragments language usage, meaning and understanding. In addition, they will immediately cast the speaker into the category of being poor, uneducated and African American (Meraji, 2013).

A shibboleth is a phrase, word or symbol that can be used to identify a group, class or person. Consequently, the use of the word ‘ax’ when asking a question is a shibboleth. In fact, several sources have made the point that ‘ax’ is not just associated with asking, but with black people asking a question; it has become an identity (McWhorter, 2004). When the Africans were slaves in the South, they found themselves without a sound identity; they had lost everything that could be used to identify them. The development of AAE became a means for gaining identification and absorption into a community, which African American slaves badly needed (Tamasi & Antieau, 2015).

The negative attitudes toward the use of the word ‘ax’ and its association with poor, uneducated African Americans has become a means of stigmatizing the people who use the word. According to Tamasi and Antieau (2015). AAE is considered to be inferior to Standard English not because the language is inferior, but because the people who use it are still considered to be inferior. Slaves were considered to be less of a human being than the other people around them. Prejudice developed toward these people as a result of this attitude of inferiority, and it has attached itself to everything associated with them. Consequently, we have a public image that suggests that the speaker who uses the word ‘ax’ is an inarticulate black man, which the media tends to support and perpetuate (Tamasi & Antieau, 2015).

This research has really changed my mind with respect to the use of ‘ax’. It is apparent that it arose under different circumstances than I had previously believe, and that it is not a sign of poverty or the lack of education. It also seems that AAE, and ‘ax’, will continue to be an integral part of the African-American experience because it represents a cultural solidarity and a shared identity for a community of people, which carries a level of prestige previously unappreciated.

  • McClendon, Garrard. “Fox News and Black English – Ebonics.” You Tube. 2007. Retrieved from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X_KKLkmIrDk. Electronic.
  • McWhorter, John. “The ‘ax’ versus ‘ask’ question. The Los Angeles Times. January 19, 2004. Retrieved from: http://articles.latimes.com/2014/jan/19/opinion/la-oe-mcwhorter-black-speech-ax-20140119 . Electronic.
  • Meraji, Shereen Marisol. “Why Chaucer Said ‘Ax’ Instead of ‘Ask,’ And Why Some Still Do.” National Public Radio. 2013. Retrieved from: http://www.npr.org/blogs/codeswitch/2013/12/03/248515217/why-chaucer-said-ax-insteadof-ask-and-why-some-still-do. Electronic.
  • Rickford, John. Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons. 2000. Print.
  • Tamasi, Susan & Lamont Antieau. “African American English.” Language and Linguistics in The US: An Introduction. New York, NY: Routledge. 2015. Print.