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The aks vs. ask controversy

As I explained in an earlier column, there are two principles that are always at work in language. The first is that language is always changing and the second is that language exists in variation.

These two language principles are at work even while we try our best to maintain a language standard. Let me be clear. A language standard is absolutely necessary because it allows us to have one, agreed upon variety of language that can be taught in school and that serves as a basis for our written language. The variety we know as standard English follows (more or less) a set of grammar, spelling and word usage rules that we can refer to when we have a question or need direction.

So the standard is necessary and learning standard English brings many advantages. However, it is important to remember three things about the standard: first, it suppresses variation and second, many of its rules are based on the written language and third, the standard has its special status as the chosen variety for social reasons not for intrinsic linguistic reasons. The standard is the language of the group that holds social power and this is true across languages and cultures. And within the standard, the forms that are chosen as the “right” or “correct” forms are often arbitrarily chosen. By this, I mean that a word or structure sanctioned by the standard is not chosen because it is inherently or linguistically better, but it’s chosen because it’s the form that is used by the group that holds social power. The most important thing to grasp here is that the standard does not represent a “purer” form of language.

All of this is well illustrated by the forms “ask” and “aks.” “Ask” is a verb in standard English that means “to request.” “Aks” is a variation of this verb that is most often associated with African- American Vernacular English (AAVE). It is considered by many to be a socially stigmatized form, meaning that those who use “aks” instead of “ask” often suffer social judgment, criticism or even language discrimination.

These are well documented facts in linguistic research. What most people do not realize is that “aks” is not exclusive to AAVE. It is also a feature of Appalachian English, of some dialects in the British Isles and until about 50 years ago, was also a feature of rural Southern English used by whites. The history of “aks” is fascinating and serves as great example of the value of the study of linguistics and the history of one’s language. It usually comes as a surprise to most people to learn that until the 1600s “aks” was the standard form of the verb in English. It was the form used by the group with money and power. It derives from the Middle English form “acsion” and was in fact used by Chaucer and later Queen Elizabeth I.

Eventually speakers of the standard variety of English chose the variation “ask” over “aks” and “aks” was retained only in more rural and more isolated dialects of English. Its continuation today in the dialects of the British Isles, in Appalachian English and in AAVE is due to its having hung on in these dialectal varieties. For anyone to argue that “aks” is a corruption of “pure” English, the history books say otherwise. While “aks” is no longer standard English, linguistically it can never be considered “impure” language. In fact, if one were to use a purity argument, “aks” would be the sanctioned form because it’s the original form of the two choices.

This particular language example shows us something really important about how standard language works and that is that the forms chosen and sanctioned by the standard variety are often arbitrary choices. In fact, some of these choices are “deviations” from the original forms. Because the standard suppresses variation (an ongoing language reality) the form chosen is not chosen because it’s linguistically superior but because it’s used by the group that holds social power. It is a myth that “ask” is linguistically superior to “aks” but it is a powerful myth that misleads speaker of standard English to believe that the reasons for looking down on the form “aks” are somehow linguistic. These reasons are not linguistic. They are social. It is crucial to point this out because linguistic science has proven that no language variety is inferior in its structure to another variety. Perceptions of inferiority are social in origin. If we as humans consider the speech of another group to be inferior, then it’s a small step to see the speakers of that variety as inferior and that is a dangerous place to be.

Julia Palmer is an associate professor of modern languages at Hampden-Sydney College. Her email address is jpalmer@hsc.edu.