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Aks for Ask in Appalachia

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Linda in Blountville, Tennessee, wonders why many old-timers in her area pronounce the word ask to sound like aks with the S and K switched, sounding like the word “axe.” The pronunciation “axe” for ask has nothing to do with intelligence. In Old English, the verb meaning “to ask” was ascian. Later for centuries in both Old and Middle English two verbs for “ask,” ascian and acsian, existed side by side, the latter the result of what linguists call metathesis, or the swapping of nearby sounds. They evolved into the “ask” and “axe” pronunciations, and when inhabitants of the British Isles emigrated to the United States, they brought those pronunciations along with them. Thanks in part to the geographic isolation of Appalachia, the “axe” pronunciation persisted and still reflects the migration patterns of Scots and Irish settlers. This is part of a complete episode.

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