Yatspeak: The History of “Axe” Instead of “Ask”

Ever wondered why people use “axe” as opposed to “ask”?  The linguistic history of the “mispronunciation” is much more intricate than you probably think.

My mother was raised in the Upper Ninth Ward on Poland Ave and my father was from Old Arabi.  Both were reared in neighborhoods where the Yat dialect was particularly strong.  Needless to say, I adopted much of their speech patterns.  Usage of “axe” as opposed to “ask” went unnoticed by me until upper class kids I played soccer with inquired about my enunciation of the word.  Many assume that people who use “axe” are of a lower socioeconomic class, uneducated, and/or black.  It’s much more complicated than those ill-informed presumptions.

Recent research by the American Dialect Society claims that using “axe” instead of “ask” is nothing new nor is it a mistake.  The word “axe” derives from the Old English verb “ascian”, which means to enquire, and its usage is dated to over 1,200 years ago.  Chaucer frequently used “axe”.  The first complete English translation of the Bible, the Coverdale Bible, also uses it: “Axe and it shall be given.”  The term has Chaucerian roots and was habitually employed throughout English literature for centuries.

Linguists are not entirely certain why it faded from common vernacular, but it is certain that it did not fade from many English dialects around the globe.  Indians (from India), South Africans, black Caribbeans, African-Americans, and even insulated white communities in the American south continue to use that term.  I also read that it is popular in the working-class white boroughs of both Philadelphia and New York City as well.  It also managed to hold strong in the Yorkshire accent of Northern England.

New Orleans, not originally an anglophone city, was linguistically isolated from the rest of the country.  It had close semantic ties with many Caribbean cities and a heavy African-American presence. It’s no surprise why many black and white New Orleanians continue to say “axe” over “ask”.  It’s not wrong; it’s just archaic.

Sources: NPR, Smithsonian

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