a-dancing and a-singing

Brian MacWhinney macw at cmu.edu
Fri Jun 5 22:59:15 UTC 2009

Dear Funknetters,

     During some of our grammatical tagging work, we have bumped into  
a construction in English for which we can't find anything even in  
otherwise great grammars such as the Quirk et al. Comprehensive  
Grammar of English.  I am hoping some of you have some ideas.  The  
construction is the preposed form "a" that occurs in phrases such as  
"He was a-dancing and a-singing his heart out."   What would help  
immensely, first off, would be to have a name for this beast.  After  
that, some history, etymology, and dialectology would also be very  
much appreciated.  Can this be found in other Germanic languages, I  
wonder?   Then, I suppose I would like to christen it with a part of  
speech tag, although I can already see the dangers there, since it  
seems to pattern more like a prefix (as in "aback" or "adrift") than a  
preposition and, on the other hand, the meaning seems to be aspectual,  
whereas the other prefixed forms of "a" seem locative or directional.

Naïvely yours,

-- Brian MacWhinney

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