Thursday, January 8, 2009

The O.E.D. on "Conversate" and "Aks" versus "Ask"

On his Atlantic blog, Ta-Nehisi Coates transcribes a conversation he had with Jesse Sheidlower, Editor at Large of the Oxford English Dictionary ("Added Bonus: Irregardless of what you think, "conversate" is a word"). English mavens may find this of interest. Here's an excerpt:

TNC: What fuels the notion that certain words aren't really words?

JS: There a lot of different things. People feel that there is a certain kind of language that's appropriate and a certain type that isn't appropriate. And these judgments are based on many things--some may make sense, some might not. People take these things very seriously. People are told things about the language in school that are demonstrably untrue, and they think anyone who doesn't follow along with those beliefs is stupid or wrong.

Let me give you an example, in terms of looking at things historically. At the beginning of this conversation you pronounced the word "ask" as "aks." This is something that people often object to. People say it's the wrong pronunciation, and it's stupid. But if you look at the history of the English language, you can't tell if the correct pronunciation is "aks" or "ask." The "aks" pronunciation goes back 1000 years. It's in Beowulf. It's in Chaucer.

What happened was both were in use. But at some point, the dialect in which the "ask" pronunciation was used became dominant. But both continued and have been in use since then. When you look at America, the "aks" pronunciation is widespread in Southern American English. African-Americans used this because they were in the South--it's not especially African-American, but its Southern.

Now, if you look at other Germanic languages, the "correct" pronunciation is, in fact, "ask"--but you can't tell that looking just at English and it ultimately doesn't matter. If I asked you to name the ordinal number between "second" and "fourth" you'd say, what?

TNC: Third.

JS: Right, third--but the old pronunciation is "thred," it comes from three. But if you were to say thred, you'd be considered a moron--even though it's "correct."

9 comments:

JK said...

Makes you curious what the history is behind some of the non-phonetic pronunciations that are considered "proper English".

Rocky Balboa said...

"What the phuck?"

Adrian said...

"Don't aks"

DaveinHackensack said...

"Makes you curious what the history is behind some of the non-phonetic pronunciations that are considered "proper English"."

It's an interesting question.

Rocky said...

YO DAVE, who cares?

Take a break and have a Pat's cheesesteak on me.

JK said...

"What happened was both were in use. But at some point, the dialect in which the "ask" pronunciation was used became dominant. But both continued and have been in use since then. When you look at America, the "aks" pronunciation is widespread in Southern American English. African-Americans used this because they were in the South--it's not especially African-American, but its Southern."

This is the theme of the book "Black Rednecks and White Liberals" by the conservative black writer and laissez-faire economist Thomas Sowell

DaveinHackensack said...

I'm familiar with Sowell's thesis in that book, but I wonder if he doesn't give enough weight to cultural inheritances from Africa as well in African Americans. For example, I remember reading some where that some of the verb conjugations of Ebonics are based on the patterns of the languages spoken by American blacks' African ancestors.

JK said...

Yeah, I remember reading something to that effect as well. Still, Sowell is always a good read, even when you don't think you'll agree with him, might be worth flipping through the book at the bookstore. His arguments (on any subject) are usually well substantiated, and not just declarations of opinion (though he has strong ones) or intuition like much that is written these days. - As noted on this blog previously, ha

DaveinHackensack said...

Sowell's economic op/eds I find interesting. I'll check out that book next time I'm in the bookstore.