Saturday, 10 October 2009

Axing for trouble: Beowulf and metathesis

The pronunciation of ask (/ɑ:sk/ or /æsk/) as axe (/æks/) is a stigmatised feature of African-American Vernacular English [AAVE] which apparently is extremely salient to speakers of other dialects.

Note, for example, the following posting on Yahoo! Questions:

Technically, what axe involves is metathesis of the s. The above answer-and-reply on Yahoo is indicative of the popular opinion on people "axing" questions rather than "asking" them: saying "let me axe you a question" is seen as an error, and one specific to Black English speakers. But this metathesis, resulting in axe (/æks/) as a variant pronunciation of ask (/ɑ:sk/ or /æsk/), is not an innovation on the part of AAVE. Both metathesised and unmetathesised forms have co-existed throughout the recorded history of the English.

The author (or authors) of the Old English poem Beowulf, which narrates the adventures of the nobly-born hero of the same name, was an "axer" rather than an "asker". All three times the word appears in the poem, it appears in the metathesised form ācsian/āxian rather than āscian (l.423 āhsodon "they asked", l.433 geāhsod "learned by asking (past participle)", and l.1206 āhsode "he asked").

[The spelling hs rather than cs or ks (as in the Beowulfian ahsodon, ahsode etc.) is found as an occasional orthographic variant in West Saxon (both for Proto-Germanic *-χs-, which became -ks- in Old English and Old Frisian, as well as for -ks- of other origins, as in the case of ācsian spelled as āhsian). See further Campbell[1]:§416.]

During Beowulf's recounting in King Hrothgar's meadhall of his prior deeds and adventures--as proof of his fitness to fight Grendel--after he mentions the fact that he has destroyed the kin of ogres and amidst the ocean's waves slain sea-serpents (at night even), he states that he has avenged the Wederas (his clan) in these words (ll. 423-4a):

wræc Wedera nīð wēan āhsodon
forgrand gramum

These lines might be rendered in modern English as:

I avenged the Wederas,
crushed their foes (they axed for trouble!)

Beowulf is certainly not alone among Old English texts in using the metathesised form āxian rather than āscian; a search for the 1st & 3rd person past singular form of the verb using the Dictionary of Old English Web Corpus, reveals 164 hits for āxode, 61 hits for ācsode, and 41 hits for āhsode against only 5 hits for āscode. In other words, Anglo-Saxon writers favoured the "axe" form over the "ask" form at ratio of 266 to 5.

Historically, Old English āscian/āxian "to ask" derives from Proto-Germanic *aiskōn, which in turn comes from Proto-Indo-European *ais-sk (earlier *h2eis- plus the suffix *-sk); Sanskrit इच्छा [icchā] "wish" derives from the same PIE root. Thus, while the metathesised forms are an innovation in the history of English, they are an old innovation (as shown by Beowulf and other Old English texts), predating AAVE/Black English, and occurring in respectable--indeed, aristocratic--literature in preference to the non-metathesised forms. So there is no need to attribute the pronunciation axe (/æks/) to "African tongues", it is rather a long-standing variant in English.

I doubt Beowulf would have been impressed if Hunferth (rather than taunting him about his contest with Breca) had informed him that he should have said "āscodon" rather than "āhsodon"...

[Additional note (23.10.09): The "axe"-variant is also attested in Middle English:
Axe not why : for tho' thou axe me
I wol not tellen goddes privetee.
(Chaucer, Miller's Tale, v3557)
And "axe" is also found in various English dialects at least into the 19th-c.; on which see Cooper[2]:28-9.]

[Incidentally, there is a 2008 movie Beowulf: Prince of the Geats (which I have not seen yet), in which Beowulf's father is an African explorer whose travels led him to Geatland. On some reactions to the film, see the article Beowulf: Prince of the Geats, Nazis, and Odinists".]

[1]Campbell, Alistair. 1959. Old English grammar. Oxford: Clarendon.
[2]Cooper, William Durrant. 1853. A glossary of the provincialisms in use in the County of Sussex. London: John Russell Smith, 2nd edn.


  1. Great post. Your answer to this perennial question is essential the same one I have always given when axed. :)

  2. Metathesis is something that could happen, especially sporadically like this, any time. Because /ks/ is found in this word in OE days (and in a variety of later dialects) doesn't mean that its appearance in modern AAVE is a survival -- it could equally well be reappearance. I haven't counted, but I suspect that /ks/ as a syllable coda is much more common than /sk/.

  3. @John: Certainly metathesis is a sporadic sort of change, but the /sk/ form of ask is well-established in both OE & AAVE.

    In principle /æks/ could be reappearance in AAVE, but I wouldn't say "equally well"--rather it would be a rather surprising coincidence.

    Metathesis of /sk/ to /ks/ is not a general feature of AAVE, and there are other words in English which end in coda /sk/ which do not undergo metathesis in AAVE (e.g. desk, cask, bask, mask, etc.) -- rather in these cases, AAVE tends to delete the /k/.

    So ask as /æks/ in AAVE looks rather exceptional...unless it's not an AAVE-innovation, but rather simply an inheritance.

    [I am sure that you're correct that /ks/ is a much more common syllable coda than /sk/ (both in terms of type & token frequency), since singular nouns ending in /k/ usually have plural forms ending in /ks/. However, I would suspect that morpheme-internally, /ks/ is probably no more frequent than /sk/. Though, for reasons given above, I think all of this is irrelevant to the appearance of /æks/ in AAVE.]

  4. I have also had occasion to mention this OE (and MidE too, I think) metathesis, but add the (total) speculation that the metathesized form survived in modern dialects spoken by slaveholders, from whom slaves in some regions may have inherited the practice; hence its modern dialectical usage.

    Do I have permission to keep doing this?

  5. @panjandrum: As in my last comment, AAVE /æks/ as a survival looks very likely, considering the treatment of other coda-final /sk/ clusters in AAVE.

    So I think your explanation of the form as acquired by AAVE from slaveholders in whose dialects /æks/ was the typical form is very probable. /æks/, of course, does exist in other modern dialects of English, apart from AAVE.

  6. Lanman's Sanskrit Reader has a clear example of the [sk]/[ks] metathesis in its "Sanskrit-English Vocabulary" (the glossary).

    Under the root "mi[palatal]s, mix" are listed several I-E cognates, including "AS. miscian, *mih-sc-ian, whence Eng. mix for misk (like ax, formerly good English for ask)".

    I guess one rule to take from this bit of erudition is to be careful, when correcting someone else's poor pronunciation, that they're not actually using formerly good English!

  7. I meant, of course, /ks/ that doesn't straddle a morpheme boundary. But you are quite right about /k/-deletion, which makes me want to reconsider. I'm just suspicious on general methodological grounds of the "It survived for hundreds of years in an unrecorded dialect" argument.

    What are the modern dialects other than AAVE with /æks/?

  8. I wasn't trying to make a it-survived-for-hundreds-of-years-in-an-unrecorded-dialect argument. I would be suspicious of such an argument too. The reason I looked at Old English is simply because that's my main era of interest. Axe/ax/aks is attested with the meaning "ask" in-between Beowulf and the first AAVE:

    The axe-pronunciation is attested at least into the 19th-century in Sussex, Yorkshire, Somersetshire, East Anglia, Herefordshire, & Devonshire (various non-contiguous parts of England), see Cooper[1]:28.

    (There are also Middle English examples, e.g. Chaucer's "But that I axe, why that the fifthe man Was noon housbonde to the samaritan?" (Prologue to the Wife of Bath's Tale 21-2), and Cooper[1]:28-9 lists additional examples from Chaucer & Wycliffe etc.)

    [1]Cooper, William Durrant. 1853. A glossary of the provincialisms in use in the County of Sussex. London: John Russell Smith, 2nd edn.

  9. An example from Caxton's Eneydos (15th century)

    And specyally he axyed after eggys. And the good wyf answerde that she coude speke no frenshe. And the marchaunt was angry for he also coude speke no frenshe but wold haue hadde egges and she vnderstode hym not.

  10. fwiw:
    "/aks/ is still found frequently in the South, and is a characteristic of some speech communities as far North as New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Iowa. It is one of the shared characteristics between African-American English and Southern dialects of American English. The wide distribution of speakers from these two groups accounts for the presence of the /aks/ pronunciation in Northern urban communities."