Q From Tim Messer, Melbourne, Australia: Aksed in lieu of asked is a grating mispronunciation. Yet, I recently heard a linguist on radio claim that the word was originally spelled, and pronounced, aksed, and that the spelling was varied to reflect a widespread change in pronunciation. Is this so?
A Some decades ago, when I first became a freelance producer, I worked on natural history scripts and — to my annoyance — regularly typed bird as brid, so much so that in our family we still refer to feathered flying things that way, puzzling visitors no end. It was only when I happened to look up its word history that I found that in Old English it had indeed been bryd (plural bryddas).
This process by which a sound changes place with another in a word is called metathesis. Wasp has gone through the same change, as it was spelled both waesp and waeps in Old English (the Latin equivalent is indeed vespa, but it seems that the prehistoric form may have been nearer waps). Another example is pattern, which was created from patron in the sixteenth century. Yet another was common in the British Army in the nineteenth century, when cavalry was often said as though it was spelled Calvary. You hear it in the spoken language — one example is relevant, which is often said with the middle consonants inverted, as revelant. Children do it a lot while they’re learning new words.
Aks is a common (and notorious) modern example. Though in standard English it’s considered a mistake, it’s common in various dialects, for example in Black American English. The linguist you heard on the radio was quite right: the two forms go back to Old English, in which axian and ascian (with a hard c) existed side by side. In this case, the -sk- sound is the older, and it seems to have won the battle for survival. But the existence of the two forms, its widespread use in dialect — plus all the other cases of metathesis — suggests that someone today who says aks is actually going through a mental process that isn’t at all abnormal, and which is probably allied to Spoonerism.