I Axed You A Question

Above is a Faux News clip about a fellow trying to teach inner city black kids how to say “ask” instead of “axe”. The fellow is being attacked in some circles as a racist who can’t appreciate unique American black language. The controversy has direct resonance for me, as it relates to an unpleasant exchange I had on the Farcebook discussion board I blogged about yesterday. I have since left that board, and all such boards.

See, it is my belief that using “axe” in place of “ask” is poor grammar and bad pronunciation. I was informed by the board’s self-proclaimed “expert” that the usage is a perfectly acceptable regional variation; or, in her words, “a dialectical thing”. When I wrote that I did not agree, the response I got was, “I’m not seeking your agreement.” Yeah, if the so-called “expert” doesn’t want to discuss on a discussion board, clearly it’s not a place I want to be. I couldn’t help but wonder, then, if she is the kind of person who typically says “axe” instead of “ask”.

Now, my reason for not agreeing isn’t that I don’t believe that the use of “axe” isn’t truly a “dialectical thing”, but rather that the excuse of regional variation can be used to excuse any grammatical error we choose. And, to be candid, eventually it’s the regional variants that win out, because ultimately the properness of language is defined by those who speak it, and not by those (like me) who simply debate it. In short, being a Grammar Nazi is necessarily a losing proposition.

But my reason for opposing such things as the use of “axe” instead of “ask” isn’t that I don’t recognize that many people do it, thus making it a “dialectical thing”. Rather, it reminds me of a conflict I had in India 11 years ago. See, a brilliant young lady whom I cared about had a tendency to speak like a 12 year old girl, and I took it upon myself to encourage her to leave out the “likes” and the end-of-sentence “upspeak” when she was to give public presentations. At the time, she was not happy with my advice.

It wasn’t till years later that she apologized for her resistance and actually thanked me, because she finally digested my point. It was this: it doesn’t matter how valid or regionally pervasive your manner of speech may be; if you cannot speak the language of power, you will never be given power or taken seriously. Moreover, it doesn’t matter how brilliant you are; if you don’t sound smart, no one will accept you as smart. And smart means embracing standard grammar and standard pronunciation.

I’m a poor kid from a rice farming village in the Third World. I had an embarrassing Caribbean accent well into my school years, and I knew that this tainted the way that teachers and peers perceived me. I am certainly not ashamed of my heritage, and would never counsel others to abandon their backgrounds or native ways of speech. But, like me, I would advise them to augment their speech with the necessary tools to “play with the big boys”: become bilingual; keep your native accents and dialects, but also learn to emulate boring, supposedly “accent-free”, straight-white-man English. I honestly don’t think I would have been afforded half of the opportunities, experiences and successes in my life had I not worked hard to gain entrance into the powerful halls of linguistic acceptance.

Not surprisingly, mine is the same attitude embraced by Garrard McClendon, the fellow in the news clip above. One can seek to make inner city black lingo more acceptable, or one can seek to teach inner city blacks how to speak standard “power” English. Society has, by default, been tending toward the former, but not quickly enough to be uplifting the current generation of disenfranchised young urbanites. The latter tack is, I believe, the more rational approach.

English is an unusual “power” language in this regard. French and Japanese have official standard versions, reinforced by institutes and governments. But standard English has traditionally been defined by the most powerful who speak it –leaders, thinkers, etc. This is changing in the modern era, though. These days, standard English is being defined not by the most powerful, but by the most famous and visible: actors, pop stars and talk show hosts. God help us indeed.