04 April 2014

Axe: An Old Word with a New Meaning






In her book, English with an Accent: Language, Ideology, and Discrimination in the United States (2012), Rosina Lippi-Green demonstrates how linguistic subordination is at the root of social prejudice, how a direct and purposeful link exists between linguistic prejudice and social prejudice, how this link reinforces racism and values tied to what makes "proper" English, and how this link manifests as institutionalized and internalized forms of racism.

In other words, if you want to find out what groups are stigmatized in a society, look at what dialects are stigmatized and believed to be "improper," "corrupt," "slang," or unintelligible, particularly African American English. Note how most Whites do not understand this perception as racist and how the perception of certain dialects as "bad English" is reinforced by institutions, including, but not limited to the legal system, medicine, advertising, schooling, and the media. For example, when African Americans are in news broadcasts, often there are subtitles. This is not usually the case for Whites.

We also see linguistic subordination at work in this meme’s use of the variant pronunciation aks. This is what sociolinguists call a marked variant–it's noticeable, commented on, and carries social meaning. Here, the pronunciation indexes, or represents, both class and race. It's most often used by speakers of African American English (AAE), English Language Learners (ELLs), and working class Whites in the South. This index, or social meaning, is juxtaposed with "Walmart" and the image of the White man in a 1950s style suite and tie. The semiotics of the meme not only reinforces racist and classist language attitudes, but the dated image also reinforces the idea that racism is a thing of the past. Yet, this meme is current and popular—that’s what makes it a meme.

The effect of the meme is linguistic subordination: it positions working class and AAE as unintelligible and "other," and thus delegitimizes not only AAE, but those who speak it.

The use of "axe" is also an example of linguistic appropriation, where features of a dialect are used for humorous effect by those who don't speak it. Here, the appropriation of "axe" functions as what Jane Hill (2008) calls "covert racist discourse...ways of speaking that Whites typically do not understand as racist, but which work to reproduce negative stereotypes of people of color" (p. 118), and thus how language plays a central role in the processes of linguistic subordination and racialization.

These processes are part the social practices that many of us unknowingly take part in everyday through our interactions, whether we are telling a joke, sharing a meme, or correcting someone’s language use. Examples like this point to how modern-day racism is internalized—something seemingly natural, normal, a part of our culture, and a way of thinking that many of us don’t question or are even aware of. This doesn’t mean that the sender of this meme is necessarily racist, or that if the pronunciation "aks" bothers you, then you are racist. Instead, it demonstrates how you, me, we internalize racism, how it's a part of our culture and world view, how racism is institutionalized and internalized—invisible—except for those who are stigmatized. Racism is not limited to the bigots of the 1950s; it is current and often subtle.

What’s interesting, however, is that the ideology behind the condemnation of the variant "aks" is that there should be one right, White, way of speaking—that language should not vary and change, ever. And yet, ironically, "aks" is the older pronunciation of the word ask, a clipping from Old English ascian. The word was spelled a-x-e, which represented the standard pronunciation until the 1600s, and even used by Chaucer, considered by some to be the greatest English writer.

The switching of the two sounds, or metathesis, of /ks/ reflects sociohistocial factors that shaped African American English, including when AAE emerged from contact among west African languages and English in the late 1500s, early 1600s through the slave trade and subsequent isolation and social segregation of African Americans, all which led to the maintenance of the older pronunciation.

By becoming aware of the modern, subtle, indirect, and covert forms of racism, such as that represented in the linguistic subordination of "axe" and perpetuated through the recirculation of memes, such as the one above, each of us can foster positive personal and community-wide changes.

References
Hill, Jane. 2008. The Everyday Language of White Racism. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
Lippi-Green, Rosina. 2012. English with an Accent: Language, Ideology, and Discrimination in the United States. New York: Routledge.