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Mispronunciation or Language Change?


I was just reading a post on Facebook, in which several individuals were squabbling about the spelling of the color “gray” vs. “grey,” with both sides telling the other to “go back to school.”

Several presumably British individuals made some rather unflattering comments about American English to the effect that there is only one English, and Americans need to learn it.

Now who needs to go back to school?

(By the way, “gray” is the common spelling in American English, while “grey” is the common spelling of British English.  Therefore, either spelling is correct.  If you are speaking of an actual name, like the famous Earl Grey tea, naturally, you would spell it with an “e” rather than with an “a.”)

To say there is one “right” way to speak or write a language is ludicrous.  As I pointed out in an earlier post, language is always changing.  Until written language came along, there were no hard and fast rules that everyone had to obey.

Language change comes about by the way people speak it.  There’s nothing inherently “bad” in this.  But to hear some people talk about it, using English “improperly” is positively immoral.

One “mispronunciation” that drove me crazy for years was “ax” for “ask,” as in, “I need to ax my mom.”  To this I would respond (mentally, at least) “Please don’t ax your mother.”  I thought myself quite clever, until I read about William Caxton.

William Caxton was London’s first printer.  He lived about 1422-1492.  He established his printing press in Westminster in 1476.  “He printed more than 100 books in his lifetime, books which were known for their craftsmanship and careful editing” (from the biography of William Caxton on the BBC website.)  And he used “axed” for “asked.”

But it’s older than Caxton.  Chaucer used, it, too, and many others, since it dates back to about the 10th century.

So why did “ask” ultimately win over “ax”?  Because Shakespeare and the King James Bible use “ask.”

The exact process that created “ax” from “ask” is called metathesis.  It’s how the Spanish got “milagro” from the Latin “miraculum” (miracle).  The “l” sound and the “r” sound switched places, just like the “s” and “k” sound switched places in “ask” to become “ax.”

So if you think speakers who “ax” instead of “ask” are just lazy, tell that to Spanish speakers, too, because Spanish is full of examples like that.

There are plenty of other examples in English, too, that are a perfectly acceptable part of “proper” English.  For example, take a look at the word “iron.”  How, judging from the spelling, “should” that word be pronounced?  Well, something like “i-run.”  Instead, we pronounce it something like “i-urn.”  The “uh” and “r” sound switched places!

Why is that?  Metathesis.  In other words, language changes, and there is nothing “wrong” with that.

Unfortunately, most schools don’t teach grammar that way.  They teach that “these are the rules, and you must abide by them.”

Now don’t get me wrong; I am all for teaching students grammar in schools.  I want them to know the difference between adjectives and adverbs, and how to know if a sentence is complete or not, etc.

But the rules of grammar don’t have to come with a moral judgment.  Instead of teaching students to look down on those who “ax their mother” rather than “ask their mother,” equip students with the tools to have a richer understanding of language.

I love grammar.  I get excited about learning new things about grammar, to the point where my husband thinks I’m crazy.  I love to dissect the language I hear and see to find out how it’s all put together.

Maybe now you think I’m crazy, or maybe now you want to go discover more about the nuts and bolts of language.

Related Article:

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