Monday, August 17, 2009

Aks not

Eugene Kane "wonders" what it means if you "ask" about African Americans pronouncing the word as "ax." He is for proper pronunciation but scolds about not singling out particular ethnic groups for incorrect usage and pronunciation, noting that nobody cares about midwesterners who love "da Bears." That is, of course, a lousy example. It is quite common to make fun of that particular pronunciation. Especially north of the 42/30.

But I have a different point.

Mostly, I want to plug a fascinating book about linguistics for a general audience (that would be me) by Seth Lerer called Inventing English. A lot of improper usage and pronunciation (and I don't hesitate to call it improper)have roots in what once was considered to be, as Kane puts it, "the Kings English."

It turns out that "ax" (actually "aks") may be one of them. In fact, it appears that the King's English was exactly what it was. It seems that our verb "ask" replaced the Old English "acsian" through deliberate (as opposed to accidental)metatheis, i.e., twisting the order of sounds. (An accidental example would be saying pasghetti instead of spaghetti.) Sometimes these old vestiges of the language hang on as variations and variations are often regional, spreading by, as it were, word of mouth. It's not that modern speakers can't keep their Olde English straight from the modern version. They haven't the slightest idea why they grew up with an outmoded form.

These pronunciations (or even grammatical forms such as use of a phrase like "she be sick" which has roots, Lerer argues, in certain creole dialects)are "wrong" but they stem from what used to be right. Hanging on to "ax" instead of "ask" has been popular in the American south and, for that reason, among African Americans (and, as Kane says, among "corn-fed" whites if we can be permitted the occasional condescention). To use another example, go back to my initial post on Irish Fest and listen to Delores O'Riordan sing about how she liked it when she was "out dere." Gaelic has no "th" sound and Irish speakers of English often choose not to pronounce it - or at least not very clearly. It's not that they can't or even that they don't know that they should. It's not that Gaelic sticks to "simple" sounds (it has more individual sounds than English). It's that this is what they heard around the kitchen table.

The politically correct - and boring - response to this is to argue that all usages are equally valid. In some sense, they may be (although sometimes these changes served a linguistic purpose) but language doesn't exist in a vacuum. We don't speak Olde English anymore and English is not Gaelic. (To his credit, Kane avoids that.) Nor is it helpful to "wonder" whether - but to never to actually say that - worrying about such things may reflect your inner racist. (He pretty much went for the Full Monty there.)

Sometimes these pronunciations and usages can be valid when we are speaking informally. (I am told that my mother-in-law used to return to her "corn-fed" southern usages when reprimanding her children.)But it is perfectly appropriate to insist upon what has become standard pronunciation and usages when context requires it.

But the reasons that people "talk wrong" - and the ways in which nonstandard language can have its own special delights - are far more fascinating than simple ignorance. I enjoyed Lerer's book and, if this post held any interest for you, I highly recommend it.

7 comments:

Jay Bullock said...

In my first year of teaching, I was out at one of those exurban high schools in Waukesha County. I was the least white person in the building, if you can believe that.

One day, one of my senior girls went off on "aks."

"What do you call the person who sells you a house?" I asked her.

Without missing a beat, she said, "A reel-at-or." Pause. Pause. "Oh."

3rd Way said...

Onpointradio.org had a fascinating show a couple of months ago about invented languages if any lingusitics afficianados out there are interested.

I agree that Sometimes incorrect pronunciations and usages can be valid when we are speaking informally. But it is perfectly appropriate to insist upon what has become standard pronunciation and usages when context requires it.

But I have a serious hang up with people that spell their name in a particular way but pronounce it in a way different from its phonetic spelling. That phenomenon seems to be increasing and is certainly not race specific.

Briahna is not pronouced the same as Briana.
Jacy is not pronouced the same as Jackie.
Auston is not pronouced the same as Austin.
Rayshell is not pronouced the same as Rachel.

And only an idiot would go through live insisting that everyone pronounce their last name Farve when it is clear their name was never intended to be pronounced that way.

illusory tenant said...

We'll never forget you, Brent.

Terrence Berres said...

Mr. Bullock's student's pronunciation of "Realtor" is among those in the Merriam-Webster OnLine dictionary. That pronunciation is preceded by the obelus mark, which its FAQ indicate means "a pronunciation variant that occurs in educated speech but that is considered by some to be questionable or unacceptable."

Brew City Brawler said...

Is it me, or do white people tend to say "ast" in the paste tense?

John Foust said...

Next up, Shark explains "youse guyses."

3rd Way said...

Do the offspring of upper midwest/southern parents use the rare hybrid phrase "youse'all"?