Hey Lang Nerd, can I axe you a question? Why do some people say “aks” and not “ask”?
Metathesis, man. Metathesis.
This is the term for when two sounds switch places in a word. It is therefore required, by custom and maybe law, that anyone explaining metathesis refer to it as “methatesis” at least once. So good, got that out of the way.
Metathesis is unusual because there’s not really a particular reason for it. Some sound changes have clear motivation, like when foreign loan words are adapted over time. English doesn’t have a particular sound, or combination of sounds, or doesn’t use that spelling to represent that sound, and so we change words to make ‘em more Englishy. Döner loses the umlaut, the capital of Japan becomes To-kee-yo, and “hotel” no longer has that je ne sais quois. Makes sense.
But metathesis? Two sounds switch, and they just do, dammit. Sometimes you need to swap the /r/ and the vowel in “pretty” and get “purty” instead. I know, I know, that sounds silly, because “purty” is not a standard form – but you don’t blink when you use older examples of the exact same thing. You don’t say “threeteen,” do you?
So all that’s happening with “axe” is that the /s/ and /k/ sounds of “ask” are switching. And “ask” is a particularly good example because (aw yiss) this is not the first time “ask” has metathesized. The “axe” form is equally old, if not older. So people who get all bent out of shape about “axe” – “Oh nooooo, don’t axe me a question! I don’t want you to chop me up with a large woodcutting tool! I am being a snot by pretending to be incapable of distinguishing homophones even when they appear in drastically different contexts!” – can go tell it to Chaucer:
Another much-maligned pronunciation that deserves a brief respite: “nu-kyu-lar” for “nu-klee-ar.” Far be it from me to defend anything associated with G. W. Bush, but come on. It’s just metathesis of the vowel and the /l/, and waaaay more normal words end with “kyu-lar” (“particular,” “perpendicular,” “curricular,” “ocular,” “avuncular,” y’know, everyday stuff) than in “klee-ar” (“clear” and… “unclear”).
Metathesis, man. It’s purty neat.
The Language Nerd
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References! This short l’il thing is a hodgepodge of the OED, etymonline, Wiks, this neat blog post with Beowulf quotes, and my increasingly hazy college memories. And if you’re intrigued, here’s the University of Ohio’s metathesis project.