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But it can’t be quite that simple, because /sk/ regularly palatalized to /ʃ/ (the “sh” sound) during the Old English period.

You can see the effects of this change in cognate pairs like shirt (from Old English) and skirt (from Old Norse) or ship (from Old English) and skipper (from Middle Dutch).

The Oxford English Dictionary says that ask originally meant “to call for, call upon (a person or thing personified) to come” and that it comes from the Old English áscian, which comes from the Proto-Germanic *aiskôjan.

But most of the earliest recorded instances, like this one from Beowulf, are of the ax form: (A note on Old English orthography: spelling was not exactly standardized, but it was still fairly predictable and mostly phonetic, even though it didn’t follow the same conventions we follow today.

(As a bonus, this sentence also has a great double negative: it literally says “no man durst not ask him”.) Only a few of the citations from the Old English period are of the ask variety.

I’ll discuss this variation between ask and ax later on.

So do Shakespeare’s plays (dating from the late 1500s to the early 1600s).

After about 1600, ax forms become scarce, though one citation from 1803 records axe as a dialectal form used in London.Sound changes are usually regular—that is, they affect all words with a particular sound or set of sounds—but this particular change apparently wasn’t; metathesized and unmetathesized forms continued to exist side by side, and sometimes there’s variation even within a manuscript. When a change is beginning to happen, there may be some variation among words or among speakers, but variation between different forms of a word used by the same speaker is highly unusual.King Alfred the Great’s translation of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, switches freely between the two: “Þæt is þæt ic þé ær ymb acsade. As for the second question, it’s not entirely clear how or why ask came back.One thing that makes it hard to pin down the date of this change is that /sk/ was originally spelled sc, and the sc spelling continued to be used even after palatalization must have happened.That means that words like ship and fish were spelled like scip and fisc.It’s not entirely clear when this palatalization of /sk/ to /ʃ/ happened, but it must have been sometime after the Angles and Saxons left mainland Europe (starting in the 400s or 500s) but before the Viking invasions beginning in the 800s, because Old Norse words borrowed into English retain /sk/ where English words did not.

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