Arrant Pedantry


The Taxing Etymology of Ask

A couple of months back, I learned that task arose as a variant of tax, with the /s/ and /k/ metathesized. This change apparently happened in French before the word was borrowed into English. That is, French had the word taxa, which came from Latin, and then the variant form tasca arose and evolved into a separate word with an independent meaning.

I thought this was an interesting little bit of historical linguistics, and as a side note, I mentioned on Twitter that a similar phonological change gave us the word ask, which was originally ax (or acs or ahs—spelling was not standardized back then). Beowulf and Chaucer both use ax, and we didn’t settle on ask as the standard form until the time of Shakespeare.

But when I said that “it was ‘ax’ before it was ‘ask'”, that didn’t necessarily mean that ax was the original form—history is a little more complicated than that.

The Oxford English Dictionary says that ask originally meant “to call for, call upon (a person or thing personified) to come” and that it comes from the Old English áscian, which comes from the Proto-Germanic *aiskôjan. But most of the earliest recorded instances, like this one from Beowulf, are of the ax form:

syþðan hé for wlenco wéan áhsode

(after he sought misery from pride)

(A note on Old English orthography: spelling was not exactly standardized, but it was still fairly predictable and mostly phonetic, even though it didn’t follow the same conventions we follow today. In Old English, the letter h represented either the sound /h/ at the beginning of words or the sound /x/ [like the final consonant in the Scottish loch] in the middle of or at the end of words. And when followed by s, as in áhsode, it made the k sound, so hs was pronounced like modern-day x, or /ks/. But the /ks/ cluster could also be represented by cs or x. For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to use ask and ax rather than asc or ahs or whatever other variant spellings have been used over the years.)

We know that ask must have been the original form because that’s what we find in cognate languages like Old Saxon, Old Frisian, and Old High German. This means that at some point after Old English became differentiated from those other languages (around 500 AD), the /s/ and /k/ metathesized and produced ax.

Almost all of the OED’s citations from Old English (which lasted to about 1100 AD) use the ax form, as in this translation of Mark 12:34 from the West Saxon Gospels: “Hine ne dorste nan mann ahsian” (no man durst ask him). (As a bonus, this sentence also has a great double negative: it literally says “no man durst not ask him”.) Only a few of the citations from the Old English period are of the ask variety. I’ll discuss this variation between ask and ax later on.

The ax forms continued through Middle English (about 1100 to 1475 AD) and into Early Modern English. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (about 1386 AD) has ax: “I axe, why the fyfte man Was nought housbond to the Samaritan?” In Middle English, ask starts to become a little more common in written work, and we also occasionally see ash, though this form peters out by about 1500. (Again, I’ll discuss this variant more below.)

William Tyndale’s Bible, which was the first Early Modern English translation of the Bible, has ax: Matthew 7:7 reads, “Axe and it shalbe geven you.” The Coverdale Bible, published in 1535 and based on Tyndale’s work, also has ax, but the King James Bible, published in 1611, has the now-standard ask. So do Shakespeare’s plays (dating from the late 1500s to the early 1600s). After about 1600, ax forms become scarce, though one citation from 1803 records axe as a dialectal form used in London. And it’s in nonstandard dialects where ax survives today, especially in Southern US English and African American English. (I assume it also survives in other places besides the US, but I don’t know enough about its use or distribution in other countries.)

In a nutshell, ax arose as a metathesized form of ask at some point in the Old English period, and it was the dominant form in written Old English and an acceptable variant down to the 1500s, when it started to be supplanted by the resurgent ask. And at some point, ash also appeared, though it quietly disappeared a few centuries later. So why did ask disappear for so long? And why did it come back?

The simple answer to the first question is that the word metathesized in the dominant dialect of Old English, which was West Saxon. (Modern Standard English descends not from West Saxon but from the dialect around London.) These sorts of changes just happen sometimes. In West Saxon, /sk/ often became /ks/ in the middle or at the end of a word. Sound changes are usually regular—that is, they affect all words with a particular sound or set of sounds—but this particular change apparently wasn’t; metathesized and unmetathesized forms continued to exist side by side, and sometimes there’s variation even within a manuscript. King Alfred the Great’s translation of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, switches freely between the two: “Þæt is þæt ic þé ær ymb acsade. . . . Swa is ðisse spræce ðe ðu me æfter ascast.” This is pretty weird. When a change is beginning to happen, there may be some variation among words or among speakers, but variation between different forms of a word used by the same speaker is highly unusual.

As for the second question, it’s not entirely clear how or why ask came back. At first glance, it would seem that ask must have survived in other dialects and started to crop back up in written works during the Middle English Period. Or perhaps ax simply remetathesized and became ask again. But it can’t be quite that simple, because /sk/ regularly palatalized to /ʃ/ (the “sh” sound) during the Old English period. You can see the effects of this change in cognate pairs like shirt (from Old English) and skirt (from Old Norse) or ship (from Old English) and skipper (from Middle Dutch).

It’s not entirely clear when this palatalization of /sk/ to /ʃ/ happened, but it must have been sometime after the Angles and Saxons left mainland Europe (starting in the 400s or 500s) but before the Viking invasions beginning in the 800s, because Old Norse words borrowed into English retain /sk/ where English words did not. If palatalization had occurred after the influx of words from Old Norse, we’d say shy and shill instead of sky and skill.

One thing that makes it hard to pin down the date of this change is that /sk/ was originally spelled sc, and the sc spelling continued to be used even after palatalization must have happened. That means that words like ship and fish were spelled like scip and fisc. Thus a form with sc is ambiguous—we don’t know for certain if it was pronounced /sk/ or /ʃ/, though we can infer from other evidence that by the time most Old English documents were being created, sc represented /ʃ/. (Interestingly, this means that in the quote from Alfred the Great, the two forms would have been pronounced ax-ade and ash-ast.) It wasn’t until Middle English that scribes began using spellings like sch, ssh, or sh to distinguish /ʃ/ from the /sk/ combination.

If ask had simply survived in some dialect of Old English without metathesizing, it should have undergone palatalization and resulted in the modern-day form ash. As I said above, we do occasionally see ash in Middle English, which means that this did happen in some dialects of Old English. But this was never even the dominant form—it just pops up every now and then in the South West and West Midlands regions of England from the 1200s down to about 1500, when it finally dies out.

One other option is that the original ask metathesized to ax, missed out on palatalization, and then somehow metathesized back to ask. There may be some evidence for this option, because some other words seem to have followed the same route. For instance, words like flask and tusk appear in Old English as both flasce/flaxe and tusc/tux. But flask didn’t survive Old English—the original word was lost, and it was reborrowed from Romance languages in the 1500s—so we don’t know for sure if it was pronounced with /sk/ or /ʃ/ or both. Tusk appears in some dialects as tush, so we have the same three-way /sk/–/ks/–/ʃ/ alternation as ask.

But while ash meaning the powdery residue shows the same three-way variation, ash meaning the kind of tree does not—it’s always /ʃ/. Ask, ash, and ash all would have had /sk/ in the early stages of Old English, so why did one of them simply palatalize while the other two showed a three-way variation before settling on different forms? If it was a case of remetathesis that turned /ks/ back into /sk/, then why weren’t other words that originally ended in /ks/ affected by this second round of metathesis? And if /ks/ had turned back into /sk/ at some point, then why didn’t ax ‘a tool for chopping’ thus become ask? Honestly, I have no idea.

If those changes happened in that order, then we should expect to see /ask/ for the questioning word, the tree, and the tool. But there’s no way to reorder these rules to get the proper outputs for all three. Putting palatalization before metathesis gets us the proper output for the tree but also gives us ash for the questioning word, and putting a second round of metathesis at the end gets us the proper output for the questioning word but gives us ask for the chopping tool. And any way you rearrange them, you should never see multiple outputs for the same word, all apparently the products of different rules or at least different rule ordering, used in the same dialects or even by the same speakers.

So how do we explain this?


Maybe the sound changes happened in different orders in different parts of England, and those different dialects then borrowed forms from each other. Maybe some forms were borrowed from or influenced by the Vikings. Maybe there were several other intermediate rules that I’m missing, and those rules interacted in some strange ways. At any rate, the pronunciation ax for ask had a long and noble tradition before falling by the wayside as a dialectal form about four hundred years ago. But who knows—there’s always a chance it could become standard again in the future.


Hayes, Bruce, Robert Kirchner, and Donca Steriade, eds., Phonetically Based Phonology (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 138–139.
Lass, Roger, Old English: A Historical Linguistic Companion (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 58–59.
Ringe, Don, and Ann Taylor, The Development of Old English (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 203–207.


Celtic and the History of the English Language

A little while ago a link to this list of 23 maps and charts on language went around on Twitter. It’s full of interesting stuff on linguistic diversity and the genetic relationships among languages, but there was one chart that bothered me: this one on the history of the English language by Sabio Lantz.

The Origins of English

The first and largest problem is that the timeline makes it look as though English began with the Celts and then received later contributions from the Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, and so on. While this is a decent account of the migrations and conquests that have occurred in the last two thousand years, it’s not an accurate account of the history of the English language. (To be fair, the bar on the bottom gets it right, but it leaves out all the contributions from other languages.)

English began with the Anglo-Saxons. They were a group of Germanic tribes originating in the area of the Netherlands, northern Germany, and Denmark, and they spoke dialects of what might be called common West Germanic. There was no distinct English language at the time, just a group of dialects that would later evolve into English, Dutch, German, Low German, and Frisian. (Frisian, for the record, is English’s closest relative on the continent, and it’s close enough that you can buy a cow in Friesland by speaking Old English.)

The inhabitants of Great Britain when the Anglo-Saxons arrived were mostly romanized Celts who spoke Latin and a Celtic language that was the ancestor of modern-day Welsh and Cornish. (In what is now Scotland, the inhabitants spoke a different Celtic language, Gaelic, and perhaps also Pictish, but not much is known about Pictish.) But while there were Latin- and Celtic-speaking people in Great Britain before the Anglo-Saxons arrived, those languages probably had very little influence on Old English and should not be considered ancestors of English. English began as a distinct language when the Anglo-Saxons split off from their Germanic cousins and left mainland Europe beginning around 450 AD.

For years it was assumed that the Anglo-Saxons wiped out most of the Celts and forced the survivors to the edges of the island—Cornwall, Wales, and Scotland. But archaeological and genetic evidence has shown that this isn’t exactly the case. The Anglo-Saxons more likely conquered the Celts and intermarried with them. Old English became the language of government and education, but Celtic languages may have survived in Anglo-Saxon–occupied areas for quite some time.

From Old to Middle English

Old English continues until about 1066, when the Normans invaded and conquered England. At that point, the language of government became Old French—or at least the version of it spoken by the Normans—or Medieval Latin. Though peasants still spoke English, nobody was writing much in the language anymore. And when English made a comeback in the 1300s, it had changed quite radically. The complex system of declensions and other inflections from Old English were gone, and the language had borrowed considerably from French and Latin. Though there isn’t a firm line, by the end of the eleventh century Old English is considered to have ended and Middle English to have begun.

The differences between Old English and Middle English are quite stark. Just compare the Lord’s Prayer in each language:

Old English:

Fæder ure þu þe eart on heofonum;
Si þin nama gehalgod
to becume þin rice
gewurþe ðin willa
on eorðan swa swa on heofonum.
urne gedæghwamlican hlaf syle us todæg
and forgyf us ure gyltas
swa swa we forgyfað urum gyltendum
and ne gelæd þu us on costnunge
ac alys us of yfele soþlice

(The character that looks like a p with an ascender is called a thorn, and it is pronounced like the modern th. It could be either voiceless or voiced depending on its position in a word. The character that looks like an uncial d with a stroke through it is also pronounced just like a thorn, and the two symbols were used interchangeably. Don’t ask me why.)

Middle English:

Oure fadir that art in heuenes,
halewid be thi name;
thi kyngdoom come to;
be thi wille don,
in erthe as in heuene.
Yyue to vs this dai oure breed ouer othir substaunce,
and foryyue to vs oure dettis,
as we foryyuen to oure dettouris;
and lede vs not in to temptacioun,
but delyuere vs fro yuel. Amen.

(Note that u and v could both represent either /u/ or /v/. V was used at the beginnings of words and u in the middle. Thus vs is “us” and yuel is “evil”.)

While you can probably muddle your way through some of the Lord’s Prayer in Old English, there are a lot of words that are unfamiliar, such as gewurþe and soþlice. And this is probably one of the easiest short passages to read in Old English. Not only is it a familiar text, but it dates to the late Old English period. Older Old English text can be much more difficult. The Middle English, on the other hand, is quite readable if you know a little bit about Middle English spelling conventions.

And even where the Old English is readable, it shows grammatical inflections that are stripped away in Middle English. For example, ure, urne, and urum are all forms of “our” based on their grammatical case. In Middle English, though, they’re all oure, much like Modern English. As I said above, the change from Old English to Middle English was quite radical, and it was also quite sudden. My professor of Old English and Middle English said that there are cases where town chronicles essentially change from Old to Middle English in a generation.

But here’s where things get a little murky. Some have argued that the vernacular language didn’t really change that quickly—it was only the codified written form that did. That is, people were taught to write a sort of standard Old English that didn’t match what they spoke, just as people continued to write Latin even as they were speaking the evolving Romance dialects such as Old French and Old Spanish.

So perhaps the complex inflectional system of Old English didn’t disappear suddenly when the Normans invaded; perhaps it was disappearing gradually throughout the Old English period, but those few who were literate learned the old forms and retained them in writing. Then, when the Normans invaded and people mostly stopped writing in English, they also stopped learning how to write standard Old English. When they started writing English again a couple of centuries later, they simply wrote the language as it was spoken, free of the grammatical forms that had been artificially retained in Old English for so long. This also explains why there was so much dialectal variation in Middle English; because there was no standard form, people wrote their own local variety. It wasn’t until the end of the Middle English period that a new standard started to coalesce and Early Modern English was born.

Supposed Celtic Syntax in English

And with that history established, I can finally get to my second problem with that graphic above: the supposed Celtic remnants in English. English may be a Germanic language, but it differs from its Germanic cousins in several notable ways. In addition to the glut of French, Latin, Greek, and other borrowings that occurred in the Middle and Early Modern English periods, English has some striking syntactic differences from other Germanic languages.

English has what is known as the continuous or progressive aspect, which is formed with a form of be and a present participle. So we usually say I’m going to the store rather than just I go to the store. It’s rather unusual to use a periphrastic—that is, wordy—construction as the default when there’s a shorter option available. Many languages do not have progressive forms at all, and if they do, they’re used to specifically emphasize that an action is happening right now or is ongoing. English, on the other hand, uses it as the default form for many types of verbs. But in German, for example, you simply say Ich gehe in den Laden (“I go to the store”), not Ich bin gehende in den Laden (“I am going to the store”).

English also makes extensive use of a feature known as do support, wherein we insert do into certain kinds of constructions, mostly questions and negatives. So while German would have Magst du Eis? (“Like you ice cream?”), English inserts a dummy do: Do you like ice cream? These constructions are rare cross-linguistically and are very un-Germanic.

And some people have come up with a very interesting explanation for this unusual syntax: it comes from a Celtic substrate. That is, they believe that the Celtic population of Britain adopted Old English from their Anglo-Saxon conquerors but remained bilingual for some time. As they learned Old English, they carried over some of their native syntax. The Celtic languages have some rather unusual syntax themselves, highly favoring periphrastic constructions over inflected ones. Some of these constructions are roughly analogous to the English use of do support and progressive forms. For instance, in Welsh you might say Dwi yn mynd i’r siop (“I am in going to the shop”). (Disclaimer: I took all of one semester in Welsh, so I’m relying on what little I remember plus some help from various websites on Welsh grammar and a smattering of Google Translate.)

While this isn’t exactly like the English equivalent, it looks close. Welsh doesn’t have present participial forms but instead uses something called a verbal noun, which is a sort of cross between an infinitive and gerund. Welsh also uses the particle yn (“in”) to connect the verbal noun to the rest of the sentence, which is actually quite similar to constructions from late Middle and Early Modern English such as He was a-going to the store, where a- is just a worn-down version of the preposition on.

But Welsh uses this construction in all kinds of places where English doesn’t. To say I speak Welsh, for example, you say Dw’i’n siarad Cymraeg, which literally translated means I am in speaking Welsh. In English the progressive stresses that you are doing something right now, while the simple present is used for things that are done habitually or that are generally true. In Welsh, though, it’s unmarked—it’s simply a wordier way of stating something without any special progressive meaning. Despite its superficial similarities to the English progressive, it’s quite far from English in both use and meaning. Additionally, the English construction may have much more mundane origins in the conflation of gerunds and present participles in late Middle English, but that’s a discussion for another time.

Welsh’s use of do support—or, I should say, gwneud support—even less closely parallels that of English. In English, do is used in interrogatives (Do you like ice cream?), negatives (I don’t like ice cream), and emphatic statements (I do like ice cream), and it also appears as a stand-in for whole verb phrases (He thinks I don’t like ice cream, but I do). In Welsh, however, gwneud is not obligatory, and it can be used in simple affirmative statements without any emphasis.

Nor is it always used where it would be in English. Many questions and negatives are formed with a form of the be verb, bod, rather than gwneud. For example, Do you speak Welsh? is Wyt ti’n siarad Cymraeg? (“Are you in speaking Welsh?”), and I don’t understand is Dw i ddim yn deall (“I am not in understanding”). (This is probably simply because Welsh uses the pseudo-progressive in the affirmative form, so it uses the same construction in interrogatives and negatives, much like how English would turn “He is going to the store” into “Is he going to the store?” or “He isn’t going to the store.” Do is only used when there isn’t another auxiliary verb that could be used.)

But there’s perhaps an even bigger problem with the theory that English borrowed these constructions from Celtic: time. Both the progressive and do support start to appear in late Middle English (the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries), but they don’t really take off until the sixteenth century and beyond, over a thousand years after the Anglo-Saxons began colonizing Great Britain. So if the Celtic inhabitants of Britain adopted English but carried over some Celtic syntax, and if the reason why that Celtic syntax never appeared in Old English is that the written language was a standardized form that didn’t match the vernacular, and if the reason why Middle English looks so different from Old English is that people were now writing the way they spoke, then why don’t we see these Celticisms until the end of the Middle English period, and then only rarely?

Proponents of the Celtic substrate theory argue that these features are so unusual that they could only have been borrowed into English from Celtic languages. They ask why English is the only Germanic language to develop them, but it’s easy to flip this sort of question around. Why did English wait for more than a thousand years to borrow these constructions? Why didn’t English borrow the verb-subject-object sentence order from the Celtic languages? Why didn’t it borrow the after-perfect, which uses after plus a gerund instead of have plus a past participle (She is after coming rather than She has come), or any other number of Celtic constructions? And maybe most importantly, why are there almost no lexical borrowings from Celtic languages into English? Words are the first things to be borrowed, while more structural grammatical features like syntax and morphology are among the last. And just to beat a dead horse, just because something developed in English doesn’t mean you should expect to see the same thing develop in related languages.

The best thing that the Celtic substrate theory has going for it, I think, is that it’s appealing. It neatly explains something that makes English unique and celebrates the Celtic heritage of the island. But there’s a danger whenever a theory is too attractive on an emotional level. You tend to overlook its weaknesses and play up its strengths, as John McWhorter does when he breathlessly explains the theory in Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue. He stresses again and again how unique English is, how odd these constructions are, and how therefore they must have come from the Celtic languages.

I’m not a historical linguist and certainly not an expert in Celtic languages, but alarm bells started going off in my head when I read McWhorter’s book. There were just too many things that didn’t add up, too many pieces that didn’t quite fit. I wanted to believe it because it sounded so cool, but wanting to believe something doesn’t make it so. Of course, none of this is to say that it isn’t so. Maybe it’s all true but there just isn’t enough evidence to prove it yet. Maybe I’m being overly skeptical for nothing.

But in linguistics, as in other sciences, a good dose of skepticism is healthy. A crazy theory requires some crazy-good proof, and right now, all I see is a theory with enough holes in it to sink a fleet of Viking longboats.

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