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aksing questions in new york
figuring out a rough, tough, and wrongly pronounced expression
by alex b (@Lexistential)

I have a confession to make. No, it doesn't involve rug burns, a hot tub, or a West Point linebacker. Nor is it about boozing weirdoes, plus-one nooky politics, misspelled text messages, or black latex.

Next to all that, it's quite boring.

Here it is: I'm a stickler for proper and authentic pronunciation. One of the things that I happen to love beyond whips and Anthony Bourdain soundbites is the English language, and I enjoy seeing how it works from state to state and in different countries. Drop me in new surroundings, and I listen to discover local accents, phrases, and slang. When I meet different nationalities and learn bits and pieces of their languages, I like to pronounce whatever I'm saying as accurately I can. Thanks to a handful of Brits, I suss stuff out, and because of a Cypriot, I can phonetically seduce cute Greek guys with "Isse poli oreos."

Culturally polite, right? Funny thing is, linguistic manners don't seem that necessary in my section of the world.

After nearly five years of living in New York, one tiny little word tests my theory and elocutionary patience on a daily basis, one that that doesn't look like it could possibly be screwed pronunciation-wise: ask.

Given it that it's pretty simple and only has three letters, most nursery school children at naptime can spell and pronounce "ask" accurately to rhyme with task, flask, and bask. But, here in my neck of the woods, bigger kids aks instead of ask. In fact, quite a few New York grownups use individual queries as a homonym for "axe."

It. Gets. On. My. Nerves.

Even though aks irritates me as quickly as a teenybopper single does, it wasn't always so. A Maori gang-based moll from one of my favorite books, the New Zealand novel "What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted", aksed a whole lot of questions; I still remember how well-written she was right in my neck of Queens. But, reading aks and hearing aks are two different experiences entirely. The former was a great literary time, while the latter sounds like a speech impediment spoken with a deliberate refusal to pronounce an "s" before "k."

Still, since people don't necessarily like being verbally corrected, I refrain from correcting someone with a purposeful utterance of "ask" if they aks me a question. But the more I hear it and feel it scratch me as though it had nails for a blackboard, I the more I try to make sense of the term.

Just as the term seems like one that a Maori gang member would use, in New York, aks looks like it belongs to a tough neighborhood where organized ass-kickings and blue-collar nuances are the assumed norm. Harlem-worshiping teenage kids fresh out of public school wield aks as a weapon at the playground next to my apartment building, while my Bronx-raised Latina girlfriends aks me to do their makeup. Grown white guys that look familiar with administering the ass-kicking or two aks me for beers.

However, aks isn't the exclusive domain of a proverbially rough New York neighborhood filled with hip-hop fans, would-be goodfellas, or acrylically frightening chicks. Preppy teenage and twenty-something folk with white-collar linings in their urban makeup aks around the city, Jersey, and even in a few suburbian 'hoods. Whether he's a white kid bored with prep school in an Upper East Side townhouse or she's an Asian chick with a 16th birthday BMW stuck in Bayside's yuppie section in Flushing, aksing questions seems to be a thing to do among younger trendite peeps too.

It. STILL. Gets. On. My. Nerves.

That said, I believe there's nothing I can do but acknowledge aks as part and parcel of New York's verbal landscape, an annoying quirk I simply must accept like an accordion-playing second cousin showing up at Thanksgiving out of nowhere. I suppose I can look at it as just one means of pronunciation in a culture where all sorts of accents already abound; to use aks isn't that far apart from adapting a Brooklyn accent that omits the "r" sound in names like Marlon or Jennifer. Whether my ears and biases like it or not, people will aks questions just as often as they'll add an abrupt-sounding lower pitch to the "o" in coffee.

People aks. Shit happens.

Still, while eager beavers new to New York are as keen to adapt as Romans in Rome, I'm not about to start aksing questions. I have a few New York-centric sayings like "not for nothin'" in my everyday verbal phrasings, but I don't feel any social pressure to sound unable to pronounce an "s" before "k."

Uh, NO.

However, if someone starts aksing stupid questions about rug burns, hot tubs, and West Point linebackers, I'll skip the polite words and just tell 'em to fuck off.


An expert in coloring outside the lines while reading between them, Alex B has a head for business, bod for sin, and weakness for ice cream during all seasons. Apart from watching Bravo marathons and enjoying haute bites here and there, she writes about TV, pop culture, and coloring outside even more lines. She sneaks Tweets via @lexistential.

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sandra thompson
6.16.08 @ 8:13a

You are brave indeed to attack the aks attacks. It drives me crazy, too, down here in Florida. It's on a par with "nukular" for nuclear. Mispronunciation used to be a sign of ignorance, sometimes even lack of "class." People are making fortunes erasing provincial or "lower class" accents from upwardly mobile speech. New York has some really great local pronunciations. Cooafee. Refoined. But I should talk (no pun intended!). I come from a part of the country where people can't say "r's" and think Atlayanta has four sylables. Every hundred or so miles there's a slightly different treatment of vowels and choices of consonants over which to elide or ignore completely. Regional accents are indeed fascinating, but outright mispronunciations are maddening. Thanks for a great olumn, Alex.

russ carr
6.16.08 @ 9:13a

At least they're not calling you "Axel."

And what was that about oreos?

adam kraemer
6.16.08 @ 10:11a

In the same vein, I hate when people say "asterik."

russ carr
6.16.08 @ 10:55a

Pretty Mary bought some skates
Upon the ice to frisk
Wasn't she a silly girl
Her little *

alex b
6.16.08 @ 5:26p

Sandra, I just hate hate HATE it when people aks me things. This particular mispronunciation really drives me nuts where others don't. I don't entirely understand how the accent started, but it's become pretty trendy- and maddening!

While I'm at it, I also hate it when people say "belinis" instead of "blini", and "aluminium" instead of "aluminum."

Russ, thank God I'm not called Axel. I think this once was enough. And "Isse poli oreos" phonetically means "You're very attractive"- perfect thing for a chick to say in Greek to a guy.

lucy lediaev
6.17.08 @ 6:23p

Alex, I have the same reaction to aks. I also have an otherwise bright friend from South Chicago who insists on substituting the word "ideal" for "idea." He'll state, "That's the main ideal," meaning "That's the main idea." Finally, in exasperation, I tried to explain the difference in meaning between the two words and was accused of nitpicking. I've given up commenting on that and number of other misuses and mispronunciations and cringe while I bite my tongue. Clearly, proper usage and pronunciation do not comprise a linguistic ideal for my friend.

alex b
6.17.08 @ 8:09p

Lucy, I would probably try correcting someone who says "ideal" over "idea." Especially since that's definitely the wrong ideal (pun intended, and boy, that sounds annoying).

I don't understand how mispronunciation tends to stick with people, but nitpicking accusations or not, an accent is one thing- every single similarly sounding word would be pronounced collectively the same (ie. ask becomes aks, backs = baks, tacks = taks). But one individual mispronunciation sounds, at the risk of sounding un-PC, ignorant and deliberately so.


robert melos
6.18.08 @ 12:08a

So all I have to do is offer cute Greek guys Oreos? I wish I knew this a long time ago.

I don't understand ask over aks. People I grew up with, attended the same schools, have known all my life say aks. I'd heard it enough times to even question if my pronounciation (ask) was perhaps wrong. I'm comfortable with ask over aks. I accept that people use it, but just don't understand its origins.

alex b
6.18.08 @ 4:05a

Robert, it's actually more like o-re-yos versus Oreos.

And Lord, aks is just a mystery. Never mind that people are exposed to other people who say ask in real life, movies, music, and literature, but they still bloody aks anyways.

tracey kelley
6.18.08 @ 7:52a

As a program director, I had a member of my on-air staff who I worked with weekly to correct some of his mispronunciations. He used "f" for "th", (so "bathroom" became "bafroom"), said "aks", and numerous other slights. I really should have sent him to a speech therapist.

At first, he was resentful, stating that I was mocking him, his race, and his cultural heritage. So I gave him a tape of James Earl Jones and said, "He stutters. But you can't tell during his performances. Do you think he would be as successful in Shakespearean roles if he stuttered? You're voice talent. This matters."

He got the point, and eventually, we worked it out.

alex b
6.19.08 @ 3:16p

Tracey, sometimes I get the feeling that if I complain about aks, I might get a similar reaction of resentfulness or presumed racism- and the only thing I'm pointing out is that "s" goes before "k". So I don't correct as much as I could.

And wow, James Earl Jones- what a terrific example to cite. I can only imagine that your voice talent would have felt a sheepish correction from your common sense and Darth Vader.

russ carr
6.19.08 @ 3:36p

It galls me that anyone could consider being irritated over mispronunciation as resentment or racism; as far as I'm concerned, it's tantamount to ignorance and should be challenged whenever possible. Speaking with an accent is one thing; defying phonetics is another. Because it's invariably a slippery slope: pronounce a word incorrectly, and soon it will be spelled incorrectly (based on the new phonetics). Now Johnny can neither speak nor spell.

I realize that incidents such as this are how language evolves...the bastardization of other languages is the source of quite a lot of English. But this doesn't strike me as evolution; it's improving nothing. Instead, it's atrophy.

alex b
6.20.08 @ 6:55a

Russ, to see people get resentful, racially defensive, and riled up to those extreme points because of mispronunciation is pretty galling. But as you pointed out, language evolves and becomes bastardized and sometimes atrophies.

To take the sentiment a little further, I think language likewise reflects an atrophy going on- I'm not sure entirely if it's educational or upbringing-wise that causes people to purposely aks and so forth. Additionally, where it gets hairy and frickin' touchy is to even call it an atrophy, for what I think is an ignorant atrophy will be defended by someone else who doesn't think so. I don't know why it's become so popular to sound so ignorant, but I know it exists.

ken mohnkern
6.20.08 @ 2:48p

Sometimes people mispronounce words on purpose, for fun. Both Jason Kottke and Grant Barrett collected a bunch. I do it, but not with aks.


alex b
6.20.08 @ 3:13p

Ken, sometimes I absitively posolutely mess around, mispronounce, and misspell words too. I'm all for having some fun with language, but aks is a whole different story, and sadly isn't just a funny one there.

lucy lediaev
6.27.08 @ 2:13p

Yikes! At work, we have a meeting room dubbed "The Library," because of its history. I was reminded of another mispronunciation that drives me nuts. Someone just paged people for a meeting, asking them to come to the Lye-Berry.

alex b
6.27.08 @ 5:10p

Lucy, that's hysterical. I think I would call the lyeberry as such while purposely impersonating a redneck accent, but other than that, it's li-bra-ry. Or if I were speaking to a three-year-old.

beth clement
6.30.08 @ 10:46p

Ah yes,
My favorite "axe" to grind! Both my husband and I agree on that particular word grating on our last nerve.
I also work with a population that not only "axe's" me questions but also has to "go use it" when they need permission to go to the bathroom.

The population?
five-year-olds from the Milwaukee Public School system.

To quote someone who I believe has good authority on the subject,
"They're standing on the corner and they can't speak English. I can't even talk the way these people talk.
Why you ain't
Where you is
What he drive
Where he stay
Where he work
Who you be
And I blamed the kid until I hear the mother talk. And then I heard the father talk. Everyone knows it's important to speak English except these knuckleheads. You can't be a doctor with that kind of crap coming out of your mouth. In fact you will never get any kind of job making a decent living. People marched and were hit in the face with rocks to get an education, and now we've got these knuckleheads walking around.
The lower economic people are not holding up their end in this deal.
These people are not parenting. They are buying things for kids. $500 sneakers for what?
And they won't spend $200 for Hooked on Phonics."
Dr. William Henry 'Bill' Cosby, Jr., Ed.D.

alex b
7.1.08 @ 12:23a

Beth, I've never met you, but I think I love you in 5 kinds of ways for quoting Cosby.

Cosby made that speech at a 2004 event marking the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. the Board of Education. And what happened? He was labeled as an elitist.

There is a linguistic atrophy going on, and it seems to flourish in lower income walks of life- and is even getting trendier among kids who aren't part of rough neighborhoods. It's ridiculous for Cosby to be labeled an "elitist" for insisting on better pronunciation, just as it's grating to hear people of whatever racial background aks a question on purpose.


adam mcglashan
7.4.08 @ 3:26a

I think Oscar Wilde once said something along the lines of England and America were two countries divided by the same language.

As an Australian (pronounced Strine), I'm sorry to say that we have a fair proportion of the population that aks questions too. These people are generally from the lower socio-economic sectors of our society. Unfortunately, these poeple seem to be the most active breeders, so within a short time our world will be over run with inarticulate trash with names like Portia and Mercedes (for some reason these people never name their kids after cars they can actually afford).

My personal fingers down the blackboard is dropped h's, as in the word herb (which no American seems to be able to pronounce correctly...). Perhaps the American pronunciation is just a nod to the French origin of the word. Maybe you could call them Freedom Flavo(u)r Leaves instead.

There does seem to be a worldwide phenomenon of speech impediments - probably something to do with most people coming from the shallow end of the gene pool. Neuter the lot of them I say!

I'm not really elitist, just elite.


alex b
7.4.08 @ 7:01p

Adam, I should have figured that aks is a linguistic blight in the Commonwealth from reading it in What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted. Glad to know how much it pisses you off as well.

And yes, we have an entirely different language from you Aussies, Kiwis, redcoats and assorted leprechauns. You guys might have a classier accent when you say words like "assburger", but hey, I bet your version of aks sounds more like ecks. I'm fine with my accent, thanks.

I still think it's ridiculous that just insisting on proper pronunciation makes one elitist. But I'll take your reasoning, for maybe it really makes one part of an elite to care about language.


adam kraemer
5.19.09 @ 9:50p

I was just re-reading this and was reminded of my brother's all-time favorite Onion headline: "African-American Neighborhood Terrorized By Ask Murderer"

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