a-dancing and a-singing

Brian MacWhinney macw at cmu.edu
Sat Jun 6 11:49:14 UTC 2009

Dear Funknetters,

Thanks to all of you (Andrew Pawley, Aya Katz, Chris Cléirigh, Larry  
Gorbet, Martin Haspelmath, Dan Slobin, Östen Dahl, Tom Givon, Muriel  
Norde, Eve Sweetser, and Suzanne Kemmer) for clarifying this  
construction.  De Groot shows clearly that the source of this  
particular form is “on/an” rather than “at”.   Reading this and  
related comments in FunkNet letters reminded me of my son’s favorite  
phrases when I nag him about something.  It is “Dad, I’m on it.”  I  
don’t know if this is a Pittsburgh (Appalachian) remnant of the king  
being out “on hunting” or not, and I am not sure I would use the term  
absentive for this, but I can definitely can see the conceptual link  
between this use of the locative “on” and the progressive. It appears  
that this link has worked for others across the last millennium or so  
and continues to work even more productively in Dutch and German.

In terms of how to treat this in tagger/parser technology, I think it  
better to treat this as a preposition, rather than a prefix.  Treating  
it like a prefix would require transcribers to actually join it to the  
verb.  If, on the other hand, the tagger finds a rather unique subtype  
of preposition before a present participle, it will surely know not to  
treat it as an article.  At least, the tagger will know this if we can  
put a few such examples into its training set.

Tom politely pointed out to me that I could have just checked the  
OED.  However, the library here in Kolding is very small, so I didn’t  
even try that.  But, then it occurred to me that maybe the OED has  
gone online.  So, I checked and indeed it is now online at  
dictionary.oed.com.   My goodness, what a remarkably rich resource!   
There are, in fact six listings for “a-“ as prefix and two for “a” as  
preposition.  The one we have been discussing is a- prefix 2.  There  
are others coming from “of” and “at”, as well as lots of other related  
forms, all sharing the common reduction to “a”.  The online OED is  
particularly nice because you can follow all the hot links directly.   
So, I was a-thinking to myself, how could Oxford University Press make  
this freely available in this way?  Then, I read the little message  
down at the bottom of the screen that said “Subscriber: University of  
Southern Denmark” and I have to now take back what I said about the  
SDU Library.  They, Oxford, and my FunkNet colleagues have certainly  
been a great help to me in seeing the scope of this remarkable form  
and its relatives.

-- Brian MacWhinney

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