Language and pronunciation are far from immutable. Accents and regionalisms can suggest a great deal about where someone is from—the Dictionary of American Regional English catalogs the vast smattering of linguistic ticks that permeate American speech. There are some linguistic divides, though, that seem to stand out above the rest: saying pop versus soda, or pronouncing “ask” as “ax.” But while your name for fizzy drinks can say something about your geography, the ask/ax divide is laden with additional cultural baggage.
NPR's All Things Considered explored the complex social stigma around “ask”. One part jumped out, though: the pronunciation of “ax” has a long—very long—history.
“The people who use the ax pronunciation are using the pronunciation that has been handed down, in an unbroken form, for a thousand years,” says Jesse Shiedlower from the American Dialect Society to NPR.
"It is not a new thing; it is not a mistake," he says. "It is a regular feature of English."
Sheidlower says you can trace "ax" back to the eighth century. The pronunciation derives from the Old English verb "acsian." Chaucer used "ax." It's in the first complete English translation of the Bible (the Coverdale Bible): " 'Axe and it shall be given.'
As we've explored previously, the English accent that dominated at the time of Shakespeare have largely disappeared, along with the pronunciations in which the bard's tales were meant to be read. The changes in pitch and stress that come to define modern accents have broken some of Shakespeare's puns, and left his jokes without a punchline.
You can listen to the whole NPR story: