Leaf-blower metathesis?

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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.]


  1. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    October 25, 2010 @ 11:05 pm

    So are you positing that current "ax" is an inherited form passed down through non-standard English dialects? Or just noting that the metathesized form has cropped up historically as well?

    [(myl) I'm not an expert in this area, but it seems likely from the evidence available to me that the non-standard forms like "ax" and "axt" are indeed inherited rather than innovated. More generally, there's no reason to believe that the features of English as spoken in East Oakland have anything to do with noise exposure, or for that matter with any other factors preventing children from learning to speak.

    I accept the view that noise in general, and leaf-blower noise in particular, is a problem worth worrying about and trying to improve. But this particular argument — which I hope was a joke that was garbled and presented as serious by the reporter — is a bad way to make the case.]

  2. Nijma said,

    October 25, 2010 @ 11:58 pm

    My brother went through a phase when he was maybe 5 or 6, of saying "ax" for "ask". The only other person in Wobegon who pronounced it like that was a kid a year or two younger who also had a very cute lisp. When the other kid got older, the lisp was not as cute, and eventually disappeared completely, along with "ax", so I've always associated "ax" with baby talk. BTW, my Hispanic students have a terrible time pronouncing the sk combination, whether "ask" or "school" or "desk", although they do all right with "escuela" or "escritorio".

  3. Danmcc said,

    October 25, 2010 @ 11:59 pm

    It seems to me that the entire section quoted from the psychiatrist is much more laid back and "jokey" than you would expect when reporting the results of a research study. For example the use of the phrase "fat ass fussy busses" (a phrase which might merit its own linguistic analysis) or the reference to ducking bullets all seem to be overly colloquial for this sort of report.

    Maybe the offending comment is a casual off hand remark or intended as a clever phrase designed to be quotable for the purposes of the article.

    Whatever the backstory and assuming he actually made the remark, would it really be a mistake by the reporter to miss pointing out the factual inaccuracy of his statement? He is quoting a respected (one assumes) scientist who has been reviewing the literature and is quoted as an "expert" in the subject. Should the reporter fact check his own expert by referring to the OED?

  4. John said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 12:15 am

    Yeah, he's an ass for making that remark, but a little classism goes a long way, I guess.

    On "ask," I've always thought that at least for the "ast" form, it's hard to know whether it's inherited or constantly re-created. Isn't final "d" as /t/ following /s/ perfectly at home is most AmEnglish? A "half-asst attempt," for example? So then it's just a question of keeping the /k/ in there, which seems easily dropped to me in common speech.

    Looking for parallels, I find that similar sk-final words are pretty rare, but personally I always feel the effort in saying something like "tasked"

    (I feel less strongly about the "ax" form being recreated, but note "asteriks".)

  5. Lazar said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 12:50 am

    On an early episode of Futurama (set in the year 3000) there was a gag that "ax" had supplanted "ask" as the standard pronunciation, and they have diligently adhered to this throughout the course of the series.

  6. Will said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 12:57 am

    @John, I think the difficulty with pronouncing "tasked" is not the sk part, but the ked part with its two directly adjacent plosives.

  7. D.O. said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 1:09 am

    'Can I ax you a question?'

    It's an awfully polite way to introduce a question. Do leaf blowers have something to do with it too?

  8. Private Zydeco said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 1:30 am

    What you might call the logical purport of the above asserion, i.e. what we are suppposed to (be able to) believe, per auctorial intent, seems to be that "aks" is, in such scenarios, in markedly dialectal and non-canonical usage, and is therefore a symptom of inerudition, which, per se, is known to be caused by noise-interference, of the type which impedes cognitive ability, and of which there is pervasively plenty in Oakland, among other unsavory transitory ordeals. I guess the term I mean to use is "implicature", but i fancy a nonce-word now and then, when i haven't got the right one handy, you know.

    What we glean as import, i.e. the full-on sociologic and historical (linguistic) gestalt of same, is that there may be no grounding for the assertion that "aks" is a reliable hallmark of undereducated modalities of speech, but that the reporter would like, and would like us to think to think it is, as a concession if not a coersion.

  9. John Cowan said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 2:32 am

    I say ask in the plain form and ast in the preterite, and always have.

    Nijma: Spanish can only have /sk/ if the /s/ is in the coda of the preceding syllable and /k/ is in the onset of the following one, which is precisely why escuela < SCHOLA and escritorio < SCRIPTORIU(M) take those forms — the additional vowel allows the /s/ to be in its coda. None of ask, school, or desk meet this condition.

  10. groki said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 4:18 am

    I agree with Dr Fussy Bus that "noise is very powerful"–though from his I abduce he's just blowing out his ax.

  11. Pflaumbaum said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 5:13 am

    @ John – isn't the metathesis in asteriks due to the influence of the cartoon character Asterix? Surely there's not a productive process going on?

    Aks reminds me of the use of borrow to mean lend, which is one of those ones people claim is likely to destroy civilisation, even though other languages seem to survive with a single word for both concepts. But if I remember rightly (can't check properly now) borrow is from OE borgian, meaning 'to lend'. Mind you, prescriptivism exists on both sides… if you'd said "Can you lend me your ruler?" at my school your life wouldn't have been worth living.

  12. The Ridger said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 5:54 am

    Another is "learn" meaning "teach" – again, many languages do fine with the one word.

  13. Jeremy Wheeler said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 6:25 am

    In the United States, certainly, it appears that 'ax' for 'ask' has become a marker for race. It seems not unlikely that its use in African American vernacular can be traced to early forms of English, though, and it is strange that 'conservative' objectors to it do not rejoice in itspreservation. In Br. English it has long been treated as archaic but as recently as 1850 it was recorded as current 'provincial' (from the Isle of Wight) English in James Orchard Halliwell's Dictionary of Archaic Words.

    Most people are familiar with Caxton's story of the merchant who had difficulty buying eggs, because of the existence of two words. egys and eyren. Caxton's comment at the end of this account is worth remembering: 'Loo, what sholde a man in thyse dayes now wryte […]? Certaynly it is harde to playse every man, bycause of dyversite and chaunge of language.'

  14. Lance said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 7:02 am

    Pflaumbaum: Asterix isn't nearly as common in the United States as it is in Europe. I know that I first encountered the character well after I'd already learned that my pronunciation of "asteriks" was incorrect.

  15. Pflaumbaum said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 7:18 am

    @ Lance – oh right. Ignore me then, John.

    @ Jeremy Wheeler – you do hear aks (with /ɑː/ though) used in London. Anedotally I'd say it was especially common among black working- and lower-middle-class speakers, though it might have spread further afield now as Caribbean-influenced London accents have spread among whites and Asians and into some of the upper middle classes.

    I guess it could be that the black kids I knew growing up were imitating AAVE speakers… this certainly happened later among both black and white kids, especially after hip-hop arrived; but I'd be surprised if that was responsible for aks, as people were using it in the early eighties before hip-hop had really caught on here.

  16. stormboy said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 7:33 am

    @Pflaumbaum: "Anedotally I'd say it was especially common among black working- and lower-middle-class speakers"

    I would agree. I've also heard it used by middle-middle class university-educated black speakers in semi-formal contexts.

  17. Ron Kephart said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 7:49 am

    Some years ago, when I was in the English and Foreign Languages department here at the University of North Florida, we had a search for a professor of French. One of our candidates was a young woman from Alabama, African American, with impeccably near-native French. But at the end of the interview, conducted in English, she asked if there were any other questions we might want to ax her. The English profs used this as an excuse to ax her candidacy and I, as a mere assistant professor, had no influence in the matter. She would have made a wonderful colleague and role-model for our French students. Ironically, the chair of the department at the time was an (East) Indian whose English was virtually impenetrable…

  18. Kylopod said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 7:58 am


    The difference is that task as a verb is a much rarer word than ask, and so speakers have more of an incentive to retain the sk-sound in the past tense.

  19. Mark P said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 8:08 am

    I interpret this to mean he doesn't like noisy leafblowers, but is he worrying about leaf blowers in Oakland, or is he saying that the poor little children in Oakland can't learn standard English because of the constant noise of gunfire?

    There are some terms in the article that sound a little odd to me. I have never seen the term "demographic valence." I'm familiar with the term "valence" in chemistry and home decor. I can see how it could mean something like "attractiveness." But in this context, I have to assume that it means the tendency of noise to be a problem within different demographic groups. I'm not sure whether it's clever or not.

    I also wonder about "fussy busses." Did he say something like "fuss budget," the term I'm more familiar with, or is "fussy buss" common in some places?

  20. Mr Punch said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 9:03 am

    Was the period ~1100-1500 exceptionally noisy? That could explain everything!

  21. GeorgeW said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 9:28 am

    Can't they do something about those "noise bombs" around the White House?


    [(myl) For commentary, see "Aksking again", 2/26/2010.]

  22. Geoffrey K. Pullum said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 9:38 am

    Google Maps will show you (this link should work, if you zoom out a bit and look south and east) just what kind of a geographical distance separates Dr. Kron from the gunfire-ridden East Oakland of which he speaks. It's not exactly a trek across the state. From his office at 2920 Domingo Avenue #204 in Berkeley, Dr Kron would simply head down noisy, traffic-clogged Claremont Avenue and cross under the freeway, and there you are. Neither Berkeley nor Oakland is at all noisy compared to Manhattan or London or Paris. Berkeley and Oakland don't differ very much at all as regards the physical environment. I have spent plenty of time in both cities: as a dean in a university headquartered there, and the local organizer of a conference located there, and a friend of a couple who reside there, and a fan of a number of the restaurants, and the father of a black son who lived there for many years… The black areas of Oakland are of course as quiet as the white areas of either city most of the time; I've never heard a gunshot, and my son never reported hearing one either. Dr. Kron's statement may well be the stupidest thing ever said about language (or about Oakland) since we started Language Log in 2003; and that's really quite a prize to be in contention for, when you think about some of the dopey comments we have reported on. A truly fantastic piece of dumb-ass opinionating. I do hope Dr. Kron is cringing with embarrassment; it is the only thing that could absolve him.

  23. Barrett D said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 10:02 am

    Do people with actual significant hearing damage pronounce "ask" as "ax"?

  24. Jeremy Wheeler said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 10:30 am

    @Pfalaumbaum: "[…] in London […] [a]nedotally I'd say it was especially common among black working- and lower-middle-class speakers, though it might have spread further afield now as Caribbean-influenced London accents have spread among whites and Asians and into some of the upper middle classes.

    I guess it could be that the black kids I knew growing up were imitating AAVE speakers… this certainly happened later among both black and white kids, especially after hip-hop arrived; but I'd be surprised if that was responsible for aks, as people were using it in the early eighties before hip-hop had really caught on here."

    Your experience seems to support my assertion that ax remained in current usage in communities with roots in British and American slavery and that objections to it are manifestations of unconscious race prejuduce. GKP's approach to much the same argument – that people talk crap when race enters the equation – (and once again I am left wishing I had half his acuity) is compelling.

  25. Josef Fruehwald said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 10:37 am

    For what it's worth, I just came across a footnote from Labov that says, "Skeat (1888) gives a fairly complete account of this development [of OE ascian ~ axien, JTF] and draws the connection to modern 'aks'."

    The citation is:

    Skeat, W.W. (1888). An etymological dictionary of the English language. Oxford: Clarendon.

    I haven't gotten my hands on this yet, but it seems relevant to the discussion about the origin of modern aks in AAVE.

  26. John said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 10:48 am

    @Kylopod: Yes, I'd agree, and was trying to come up with a common-enough -sk word that might show similar patterns to ask, but no luck.

    @ Pflaumbaum: As has already been noted, Asterix the Gaul would be unrecognized in most of the US.

    It's surely not close to exclusively Black in the US, though it is perhaps on its way there.

  27. John Cowan said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 11:12 am

    I don't think that the pronunciation astericks is a result of metathesis, but of dissimilative simplification followed by a merger of singular and plural forms: asterisk loses its /s/ to become asterick, pl. astericks, and then astericks takes over as both sg. and pl. Otherwise, we'd expect asterix pl. asterixes, which as far as I know doesn't occur.

  28. Faldone said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 11:15 am

    Ridger: Another is "learn" meaning "teach" – again, many languages do fine with the one word.

    I have an excellent example of learn/teach in Belfast, Nothern Irish dialect from the McPeake family of Belfast.

    This tune was teached to me by the old man what learned me many years ago.

    I have taken it to mean that the old man taught (learned) him the playing of the pipes but taught (teached) him that particular tune.

  29. Adrian Bailey said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 11:26 am

    It strikes me that Mr Kron isn't a nimby, or even a nimfy, but a niyfy, and that unless you're being ironic, you're exposing his rant to closer inspection than it deserves.

    [(myl) Well, now that I come to think of it, we expose *everything* to closer inspection than it deserves.]

    [As academics, Adrian, exposing things to closer inspection than they deserve is our job description. —GKP]

  30. JL said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 11:55 am

    I think you're missing at least one possibility, as far as attributional abduction goes, and the most likely one: the source actually said it, and the reporter, probably seeing the stupidity, nevertheless printed it, not in the service of 'ironic subversion' but simply because it was a vivid quote, the stupidity of which he felt comfortable leaving individual readers to judge.

  31. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 12:08 pm

    But note the way the general (and not implausible) thesis "that people talk crap when race enters the equation" plays out in this particular instance. Let's assume arguendo that the good doctor has the sort of political/social/cultural attitudes one might stereotypically predict of a Berkeley psychiatrist. He has a problem: black children in East Oakland keep exhibiting a linguistic behavior that All Right-Thinking People (including himself) view as a badge of idiocy and ignorance (rather than archaism or dialect variation), yet he doesn't want to say anything pejorative-sounding about them. So why not concoct an alternative theory of causation in which these children are the victims of the excesses of the capitalist system and its callous indifference to blah blah blah, with their disfluency simply confirming their victim status? Problem solved!

  32. languageandhumor said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 12:32 pm

    @Josef Fruehwald I have, a short reach away, the 2005 reprint of the 1910 New [4th] Edition Revised and Enlarged of _An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language_ by Walter W. Skeat.


    ASK, to seek an answer, to request. (E. [Modern English]) ME. [Middle English] _asken_, _aschen_, _axien_, &c. _Asken_ is in Ancren Riwle, p. 338. _Axien_ in Layamon, i. 307. AS. [Anglo-Saxon] _âscian_ [I'm using circumflexes for macrons throughout], _âhsian_, _âcsian_, Grein, i. 14, 24, 40. The form _âcsian_ is not uncommon; whence mod. prov. E. _ax_, as a variant of _ask_. The AS. _âscian_ produced ME. _ashen_, now lost; the surviving form _ask_ was orig. Northern. + ["not derived from but cognate with"] Du. _eischen_, to demand, require; Swed. _âska_, to ask, demand; Dan. _æske_, to demand; OHG. _eiscôn_, _eisgôn_; MHG. _eischen_; mod. G. _heischen_, to ask. Teut. types *_aiskôn_, *_aiskôjan_. …

  33. Kylopod said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 12:51 pm

    As an American, I never heard of Asterix till reading John McWhorter's book Power of Babel.

  34. Coby Lubliner said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 12:53 pm

    Geoff Pullum: From his office at 2920 Domingo Avenue #204 in Berkeley, Dr Kron would simply head down noisy, traffic-clogged Claremont Avenue and cross under the freeway, and there you are.

    Yes, in the very pleasant Temescal neighborhood, having passed through the elegant Rockridge district. To get to East Oakland, on the other hand, he would have to continue on Telegraph and turn left on MacArthur, and keep going…

    [Yes, yes, you'd have to turn left… But my point is that at no point do you start finding bullets whizzing round your ears as you drive on through East Oakland to the Coliseum or the Oakland International Airport. You can stop and buy a soda without braving a hail of machine-gun fire. —GKP]

  35. David Marjanović said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 1:09 pm

    cf. Skr. ish to seek, ichchhā wish

    So Russian искать (iskat') "to seek" is cognate, too?

  36. C.J. O'Brien said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 1:17 pm

    @J.W. Brewer

    That's exactly my take on our Berkeley psychiatrist's abysmally ignorant and (I think unintentionally) racist assertion. I read the article just last night, and I seriously considered contacting Kron or the author of the article, or both, to say "what the hell is wrong with you, that you can say/print/believe that?!"

    But good to see I wasn't the only one who noticed. Should have figured the Language Loggers would be on it.

  37. GeorgeW said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 2:03 pm

    Is there any phonological motivation for the /sk/ > /ks/ metathesis?

  38. Nick Z said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 3:39 pm

    @David Marjanović
    Yes. And, perhaps most pleasingly, Middle Irish escaid 'cleansing, esp. of removing vermin'.

  39. Kylopod said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 3:43 pm


    It seems to me that /ks/ rolls off the tongue easier.

  40. Coby Lubliner said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 4:34 pm

    It's interesting that in many cases Latin /ks/ and /sk/ merged in Romance, e.g. examen, vascellum → eixam, vaixell (Catalan), essaim, vaisseau (French), sciame, vascello (Italian).

  41. GeorgeW said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 4:37 pm

    @Kylopod: But why? I don't think sonority is a factor, assimilation isn't, voicing isn't, etc.

  42. groki said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 4:42 pm

    Mark P is "fussy buss" common in some places?

    I believe the singular might be "fussy bus." I haven't heard it myself, but a quick goog yesterday suggested some connection to child care.

    a made-up example: "Sounds like Junior is on the fussy bus again this morning."

  43. Kylopod said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 5:31 pm


    I don't know why. I just know it somehow feels easier. It seems to require less effort by the mouth, and to be a briefer sound. Of course, it could simply be that it's a much more common sound in English, and therefore I'm more habituated to it.

  44. Julie said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 7:25 pm

    The kids in my neighborhood all seemed to say ax, and I'm quite sure that none of us (in our small town) had ever met a black person. But most of those kids were of Southern extraction, and had parents with noticeable Southern accents.

    Oh, and Geoff: I live in Sacramento's Oak Park, and there have been a few summers in the past thirty-something years where I heard shots nearly every night. You're telling me that Oakland is really not as bad as Sacramento? I'm shocked. Really.

    [Somebody must occasionally hear shots: Oakland has had a worryingly high gun-crime rate at various periods. I didn't say no one had ever heard gunshots echoing around the city; I said I'd spent plenty of time there without ever hearing one. My point is just that Dr. Kron is casually passing on not one stereotype but at least two. Oakland deserves better than to be caricatured by a snooty psychiatrist who apparently never ventures south of Route 24. —GKP]

  45. Jonathan D said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 9:40 pm

    It's quite common in some lower socio-economic areas in Australia, too, and I'd never have thought there was a link to race in that case.

  46. Rodger C said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 10:16 pm

    In short, yet another case where a Southern dialect feature, heard by people who never hear any white Southerners, is (a) assumed to be exclusively African American (b) attributed to some deficiency, even though here the perpetrators (perpetuators?) are imagined to be the "victims" of it. I suppose Dr. Kron would blame leaf blowers for the pin/pen merger too?

  47. maidhc said,

    October 27, 2010 @ 1:17 am

    In Irish, English "box" gives two forms, "bocsa" and "bosca".

  48. Pflaumbaum said,

    October 27, 2010 @ 10:47 am

    @ Kylopod – the relative ease of dorsal-to-coronal over coronal-to-dorsal transitions in consonant clusters is also invoked to explain correspondences like the following via metathesis:

    Gk. árktos, Skt. ṛkṣá, Lat. ursus (<*urksus) but Hitt. /hartka-/ < PIE *h₂ŕ̥tḱos

    Gk. chthṓn, Skt. kṣám but Toch.A tkam̩, Hitt. tēkan < PIE *dʰgʰom-

    So it looks like the metathesis occurred sometime after Hittite and Tocharian split off, giving *h₂ŕ̥ḱtos and *gʰdʰom.

    In one of his brilliant posts on here, Don Ringe presented the idea that they involved the insertion of *s along the way:


  49. GeorgeW said,

    October 27, 2010 @ 11:27 am

    Pflaumbaum: "the relative ease of dorsal-to-coronal over coronal-to-dorsal transitions in consonant clusters is also invoked to explain correspondences . . ."

    Hmm. English has many /sk/ clusters in English codas like, 'task,' 'husk,' 'mask,' etc.

    English also seems to have no difficulty with /sk/ clusters in onsets as we have many words like 'skill,' 'skate,' 'scot,' etc.

    However, we apparently have difficulty with /ks/ onsets. In fact, I can think of none off hand.

  50. Kylopod said,

    October 27, 2010 @ 11:41 am

    Actually, by my count there are no more than about two dozen English words that end in /sk/ (ask, bask, brusque, burlesque, desk, dusk, flask, grotesque, husk, mask, musk, mosque, task, tusk, and the generalized suffix -esque used to create words like Kafkaesque). The /ks/ ending is substantially more common, not just for those words ending in the letter x (e.g. box), but also for any plural to a noun ending in /k/ (e.g. socks), and for any present-tense singular to a verb ending in /k/ (e.g. makes). I think /ks/ is a sound that comes much more easily to English speakers.

  51. Pflaumbaum said,

    October 27, 2010 @ 3:39 pm

    Also, frequency in the language doesn't tell you very much, as they're not in contrast with each other except in isolated cases like ask/aks.

    There are lots of /sk-/ onsets mainly for historical reasons – because of Norse, I think. If Britain had been conquered by India rather than vice versa we might have more /kṣ-/ onsets. But you're right, it's as dangerous to extrapolate from a metathesis that the new sound is 'easier' as it is from distribution in the language. /*dʰgʰom/ does seem intuitively hard, mind… though it's only a phonemic reconstruction.

    One example of a [ks-] onset is the informal 'ksake, meaning '(for) fuck's sake'. I've seen it written xake on a forum! Its voiced equivalent is 'gzactly.

  52. Kylopod said,

    October 27, 2010 @ 4:10 pm


  53. GeorgeW said,

    October 27, 2010 @ 4:16 pm

    @ Pflaumbaum: "One example of a [ks-] onset is the informal 'ksake, meaning '(for) fuck's sake'. I've seen it written xake on a forum! Its voiced equivalent is 'gzactly."

    Are these Britishisms? I have never heard either. I have a hard time trying to pronounce them without inserting a schwa between the the /k/ and /s/ (particularly with soap in my mouth).

  54. Pflaumbaum said,

    October 27, 2010 @ 4:27 pm

    @ Kylopod – well, if any of the proper phoneticians are reading, I get the feeling this isn't going to end well…

    @ George – Could be BrE I guess. 'kinell for 'fucking hell' is very common here.

    Just say 'fuck's sake' and swallow the first syllable. It might be a [kʰs-] actually, I can't tell with the /s/…

    I can't believe Americans don't say 'gzackly! How do you communicate that you passionately agree with someone when you're drunk and weren't really listening to what they were saying?

  55. GeorgeW said,

    October 27, 2010 @ 4:53 pm

    As evidence for the constraint against /ks/ in an onset, I submit words spelled with an initial /x/. In a coda they are pronounced /ks/, but in the onset they become /z/ like 'xylophone.' 'Xavier' is sometimes pronounced with /ks/ by inserting an initial /i/ and breaking the cluster into two syllables 'ig-za-vier.'

  56. dirk alan said,

    October 27, 2010 @ 10:00 pm

    dont make me kick your ask.

  57. APC said,

    November 2, 2010 @ 3:47 pm

    @GeorgeW: I've heard the 'ig-za-vier' pronunciation only among comic-book fans, in reference to the given name of Professor X, leader of the X-Men. Make of that what you will.

  58. SilenceIsGolden said,

    November 3, 2010 @ 4:39 pm

    This is odd – not being from/in the USA, I had to blink twice about this guy's remark being considered racist.

    However, as a victim of excessive noise from leaf blowers myself, I took this to mean something completely different: "Can I ax you something? Like one of your darn trees that loses all those leaves you seem so insanely intent to chase around your yard for hours on end!"

    How about that interpretation?

  59. “Ask” vs. “Ax” | Out of the Middle said,

    November 5, 2010 @ 12:27 pm

    […] the Language Log points out, the idea that the "ax" pronunciation is caused by too much noise in black […]

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