a-dancing and a-singing

Andrew Pawley andrew.pawley at anu.edu.au
Sat Jun 6 00:55:24 UTC 2009

Just to add to Suzanne's reply to Brian's query, the frequent use of a-dancin' and -a-singin' constructions in Appalachian English was first described in some detail in Walt Wolfram and Donna Christian's book /Appalachian Speech/ (Arlington: Virginia, Center for Applied Linguistics 1976).  There's a sizeable literature on Appal. English.

It's interesting that "on" figures in another semi-productive construction that expresses progressive action: "be on the N", where N is the nominal use of a verb, as in on the take, on the run,  on the slide/decline/rise, on the burst (in Rugby football, to be bursting through a gap in the defence).  But here "on" normally carries full stress; at least I've not noticed it with a reduced variant.


Andy Pawley

From: Suzanne Kemmer <kemmer at rice.edu>
Date: Saturday, June 6, 2009 9:57 am
Subject: Re: [FUNKNET] a-dancing and a-singing
To: Funknet <funknet at mailman.rice.edu>

> 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.  
> English
>   _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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