Friday, December 02, 2005

The "ask" of evil

I think it's time we considered abolishing the word "ask" from everyday usage. It's structurally unfair. The "sk" sound is just too difficult to pronounce for most people. (Thankfully, I've got it down. Start with an open "ah" then follow with a hissing "sssss", then tongue-on-roof-of-mouth-"kkkk"-kick.) See what I mean? This word is far too much work. In a language like English where we are constantly making accomodations for new words, why can't we find a simple substitute for this pesky word. Consider this: with just three letters we are asking the jaw, tongue and entire dental arcade to go through a rigorous gymnastic routine. Open mouth wide. "Ah". Thrust tongue forward. Hiss. "ssss". Now roll up tongue and click. "kkk". Exhausting.

If you invert the letters so that the "kkkk" precedes the "sss", you are cutting the number of movements in half. How many times have you heard somebody pronounce this little fellah as "axe"? They're not stupid. They're just conserving energy. They're onto the direct object in one fluid motion. True, "axing" somebody something leaves behind a gory image, but if we use a little less imagination we'll get through this.

Now, why am I bringing this up? Me, a traditionalist when it comes to the spoken word. I'm doing it for my Continental European friends. If you think those tongue movements are difficult for those of us reared on English and its Germanic cousins, it's an absolute axe slaying for those whose mother tongue is a Romance language. Italians, in particular, cannot pronounce either "ask" -- they give it an extra "uhhh" after the "kkk" -- or worse, the past tense, "asked."

I cringed when I read this recent mini profile from the New Yorker on Gianrico Carofiglio, an Italian anti-Mafia prosecutor and mystery writer. Here's Carofiglio on his early doubts about getting into crime novels from the New Yorker interview:

“If somebody asked”—Carofiglio pronounced the word with two syllables—“me some years ago what is my most absurd dream, I would have said presenting a book, my book, in translation, in New York City.”

Don't snicker, Yanks. "Asked", I would say, is not nearly as butchered as the word "gnocchi". There are only 10, maybe 12 Americans, (and even fewer Brits) who can properly pronounce this dish even though everybody loves it. The "gn" in Italian is pronounced "nnnn-yuh" like "yuck" with an an "n" in the front and no "ck" in the caboose. So, gnocchi would be "nnn-yuh-aw-key". Americans have destroyed all kinds of Italian words. You cannot tell me Schiavo is pronounced "Shy-voh". Nope, sorry. All credibility ends right there. If I was covering that story, that's the first question I'd....erm, raise.

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