Dare to Ask: They dared to aks, so we'll answer
By PHILLIP MILANO, The Times-Union
Question, Aksed Once
Why is it a lot of African-Americans say words differently? For example,
instead of "ask," they pronounce it "aks"?
L. Amor, 55, white female, Jacksonville
Question, Aksed Repeatedly
Why do so many black people say "aks"? I grew up saying "basghetti" and
"liberry," but I don't still do it.
FreedaBee, 42, white female, California
A small mix of dialect with a lot of ignorance. The same reason a lot of
(mostly) white people come to my job and "ask" about inkjet "cartilages."
Brad, 33, black, Winchester, Va.
As long as people understand what we are saying, it doesn't matter how we say
Jalissa and Charles, both 18, Chicago
I wonder this myself and am not proud. Speak proper English, my fellow
Cliff, 33, black, San Francisco
Most black folks migrated from the South, so since we tend to be raised in
households with Southern speech patterns, we tend to speak that way, too.
Jim, 32, black, Jones, Ohio
Not everyone pronounces words like Caucasians do, and it's not right to
expect them to. There are differences among us, including family rearing, foods,
clothing styles, hairstyles, etc. Why would speech pattern be any different?
Amber, 27, black, Raleigh, N.C.
Some might akseth: If it was OK for the "Father of English literature," isn't
it OK for some black people (or anyone else)?
Chaucer employed it during the Middle English period ("I axe, why the fyfte
man Was nought housband to the Samaritan?" - Wife of Bath's Prologue, circa
For a while (as in centuries), both forms were accepted. But around 1600,
hoity-toity types in the Old Country decided "aks" t'weren't good enough.
"However, 'aks' was the form most commonly used in the dialect of English
that slaves were exposed to," said Sandra Wilde, professor of curriculum and
instruction at Portland State University, who researched the issue for her book
What's a Schwa Sound Anyway? A Holistic Guide to Phonetics, Phonics, and
"It's the nature of language to change, but one reason black English has
persisted has to do with social separation. . . . You speak like the people you
hang with - and there is still a fair degree of social separation in our culture
based on race."
So "aks" really isn't "worse" or "lazier," it's just that some people
retained this older version, she said. In fact, one reason for African-American
Vernacular English (Ebonics) is that people who've been marginalized often hold
onto language to retain their identity.
"[The debate over ask vs. aks] isn't because one is more logical or
historically grounded," Wilde said. "It's because of who speaks them that
negative attitudes carry over to the usage . . . it's reinforced by the media
and the so-called language experts, the grammar snobs."
Phillip Milano, author of I Can't Believe You Asked That! (Perigee),
moderates cross-cultural dialogue at Y? The National Forum on People's
Differences. Visit www.yforum.com to submit questions and answers. Send general
column comments to phillip. email@example.com. You can also hear his
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