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.

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.

History and the Power of Words

I’m reposting from Rosina Lippi-Green’s webpage, English With and Accent. Her October 19th post discusses the n-word and a recent article by Janet Fuller (Southern Illinois University) in Popular Linguistics. Both Fuller and Lippi-Green help me to better understand how important our understanding of power relationships and history are in our choice of words, particularly how significant social history is when it comes to the meanings and uses of words, like the n-word. Both also remind me of Jane Hill’s book, The Everyday Language of White Racism, which also explains how social history has reinforced prejudice, not just in terms of linguistic prejudice and pejorative terms, but also in terms of economic prejudice. For example, Hill explains that one reason that there are such economic disparities between Blacks and Whites today is because Blacks, as a whole, were denied the opportunity to take part in the growth of national wealth from the inception of our country into the mid-20th century. On the other hand, for 300+ years Whites, as a whole, were not only able to participate in the wealth-making, but also to share the wealth. Today’s disparities are grounded in a 300-year jump start for Whites. I highly recommend Hill’s The Everyday Language of White Racism and Lippi-Green’s English with an Accent  if you want to understand how language plays a central role in racism.

At Popular Linguistics there’s an invited column with the title The Mysteries of the N-word which was written by Janet M. Fuller,  Director of Women’s Studies at Southern Illinois University/Carbondale. Fuller looks at the relative social value and impact of words which can be both utterly offensive and a signal of affection or approval, depending on context. She is writing about nigger, for the most part, but she also brings in other examples.
We can’t leave history out of it. Power relationships matter, and we can’t escape the history of white people having more power than black people in the United States. Even if particular white speakers are themselves not more powerful than the black people they are addressing, their use of ‘nigger’ would reference a power relationship with white people in a superior position – unless, of course, a close personal relationship trumps that dynamic. To make another parallel to gender, it’s quite different if adult women refer to their female friends as ‘girls’ and if a male boss refers to female employees as ‘girls’. The first is about solidarity — and, probably, wanting to tap into the positive associations of youth — and the second is about depicting the female employees as powerless and inconsequential, part of a faceless, gendered group.
This is the kind of essay you could hand to somebody who is having real trouble understanding the importance of context.  Or you could pass on a different story, which a friend told me some years ago and which has stuck with me whenever this subject comes up.
This friend has two teenagers, and she also has two elderly parents who live in rural (let’s say, Nebraska, but fill in the state of your choice here). Visiting with the kids, her parents were shocked and upset to hear their grandchildren use the f-word, and of course, they let my friend know how inappropriate and offensive they found this.
She said to them, “You know the way you feel when you hear them say fuck? That’s the way they feel when they hear you say nigger.”
And with that, they dropped the subject and never raised it again. I’ve never come across a better example of the potential shock value of context, which once in a while hits you over the head by letting you hear yourself with all filters stripped away.