a-dancing and a-singing

Suzanne Kemmer kemmer at rice.edu
Fri Jun 5 23:56:48 UTC 2009

It's from  late OE/early Mid. Eng.   _on V+ing_    'in the process of V 
+ing'; both this construction and
one based on root adjectives and prepositions
  _on-live_--> _alive_  show similar semantic grammaticalization of _on_
to the meaning  'in the process / state of'.   These  _a-_ prefix   
constructions are older than more
recent and semantically similar grammaticalizations of _on_ as in mod.  
  _ongoing_, _going on and on__

The verbal construction on-V+ing_ is still productive dialectally  in  
Amer. and Brit. English
(_a-rockin' and a-rollin' around the clock tonight_)
and also survives  in certain expressions (Time's a-wastin').

Check the OED under prefix a-;
  also any good history of English.

On Jun 5, 2009, at 5:59 PM, Brian MacWhinney wrote:

> 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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