a-dancing and a-singing

Paul Hopper hopper at cmu.edu
Sat Jun 6 13:10:43 UTC 2009


The OED has been available free through your own Hunt Library at CMU for
years. I use it frequently.


On Sat, June 6, 2009 7:49 am, Brian MacWhinney wrote:
> 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

Prof. Dr. Paul J. Hopper
Senior Fellow
Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies
Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg
Albertstr. 19
D-79104 Freiburg
Paul Mellon Distinguished Professor of Humanities
Department of English
Carnegie Mellon University
Pittsburgh, PA 15213

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