Tad Friend, "Blowback: The great suburban leaf war", The New Yorker 10/25/2010:
Dr. Michael Kron, a Berkeley psychiatrist who had been canvassing studies on noise, addressed the problem's demographic valence. "Because we're not living in Oakland ducking the next hail of bullets, there's this idea that we're just some fat-ass fussy busses, rich white people in the suburbs, worrying about a little noise,", he said. "But noise is very powerful. We've used Britney Spears songs on Guantánamo Bay prisoners."
The actual noisiness of blowers is a vexed issue. The average new blower is rated at about sixty-nine decibels, only as noisy as a loud conversation. But that official rating is determined by measurements made fifty feet away in an open field. Those operating the blowers are subjected to considerably more noise, as are neighbors who live in cramped or reverberant terrain; Kendall had just clocked the Stihl BR 500, which is rated at sixty-five decibels, at ninety-eight decibels up close — nearly ten times as loud. Kron continued, "Children exposed to these noise bombs, it's a disaster: impaired concentration, impaired sleep, inability to learn to read and speak. Children in loud, loud places like East Oakland are the ones who grow up saying, 'Can I ax you a question?'" [emphasis added]
As the OED explains, the verb form spelled "ax", and meaning "To call upon any one for information, or an answer", originated more than a thousand years ago in OE. ("Old English"), some time prior to the invention of the leaf blower:
The crucial bit of this:
Acsian, axian, survived in ax, down to nearly 1600 the regular literary form, and still used everywhere in midl. and south. dialects, though supplanted in standard English by ask, originally the northern form.
Thus from The Seven Sages of Rome, (Anon., 1100-1500 Middle English Romances):
3170 "Certeys, quothe the Erle, hit ys my wylle
3171 Alle that you ax to fullefylle."
3366 But the chylde couthe fulle welle,
3367 And bade the constabil of the castelle:
3368 "Gone, ax the kynge anon ryght,
3369 If he wolde holde that he hyght,"
So Dr. Kron's quoted remark leaves us with the usual problem of attributional abduction. As I wrote in 2004:
- the source actually said this, and the reporter didn't see any problem with it; or maybe
- the source said something sensible, and the reporter garbled it out of ignorance; or maybe
- the source said something sensible, and the reporter garbled it on purpose, in order to make the source look stupid; or maybe
- the source actually said this, and the reporter saw the stupidity but included it without comment or correction as ironic subversion; or maybe
- the source said something sensible, and the reporter wrote something sensible, but an editor garbled it, whether out of ignorance or malice …
Or maybe the paper's production facilities were infiltrated by a squad from The Onion. You get the idea — something is happening here, but we don't know what it is. We know exactly what the sentence means, but we're completely puzzled about how to interpret it. We're reduced to doing a kind of attributional abduction: reasoning to the most likely explanation for the publication of this bone-headed remark.
There is a bit of evidence within the same passage that may help us choose. You may be wondering how 98 dB is "nearly ten times as loud" as 65 dB. In fact, I think that this is correct.
Since a decibel is ten times the base-10 log of the ratio of two power measures, a difference of 98-65 = 33 decibels between two sounds means that the louder one is 10^3.3 = 1,995 times the sound power of the softer one. As for the perceived loudness, a crude rule of thumb is that loudness increases by a factor of two for each 10 dB of increase in sound level — so 33 dB translates to 2^3.3 = 9.9 times louder.
The fact that Tad Friend and his editors got the loudness calculation right makes the explanations that depend on reportorial or editorial ignorance somewhat less likely, in my opinion, although this argues against my normal rule in such cases: "When in doubt, blame the reporter".
[Just to avoid misunderstanding, let me stipulate that the racial subtext of Kron's remark (as quoted) is obvious — but he's saying, apparently seriously, that the use of "ax" for "ask" in AAVE is the result of excessive noise in places like East Oakland causing "inability to learn to … speak". But the fact is that this feature is documented in AAVE from the middle of the 19th century if not earlier, and appears to be a survival, in several non-standard varieties of English, of what was the standard form until about 400 years ago. It has nothing to do with "inability to learn to speak" from any cause at all.]