A-prefixing

"He just kep' a-beggin' and a-cryin' and a-wantin' to go out."

(Wolfram and Christian 1976)

"A-prefixing" refers to the phenomenon whereby a prefix a- attaches to a verbal form inflected with the suffix -ing, as in the following examples from Appalachian English:

(1) a. I know he was a-tellin' the truth, but I was a-comin' home. (Appalachian English; Wolfram 1976)
     b. Well, she's a-gettin' the black lung now, ain't she? (Appalachian English; Wolfram 1976)

The progressive suffix is often spelled as -in’ in examples containing a-prefixing to reflect a phonological process where the word-final velar nasal of the -ing suffix surfaces as an alveolar nasal.

Who says this?

A-prefixing has been studied by linguists who have focused on speech communities that were predominantly white and as such, it is unclear whether a-prefixing is present in varieties of speakers of other ethnicities. Within white speech communities, a-prefixing is found in Southern American White English (Stewart 1972; Hackenberg 1973; Wolfram & Christian 1976; Wolfram 1976; Feagin 1979; Wolfram 1988), most specifically in Alabama, West Virginia and east Tennessee. Feagin (1979, p.116) mentions attestations spread throughout the United States, starting as early as 1846 (taken from Atwood 1953, Allen 1975, Wentworth 1944) and points out that Wright (1898) noticed it in varieties spoken in Scotland, Ireland and parts of England. Montgomery (2009) argues that the origin of the a-prefix in Appalachian English arose from the speech of settlers from southern England.

In some varieties, the form is less common in the speech of younger individuals. In a study conducted by Christian et al. (1988), they found that a-prefixing in Ozark English is not present in the speech of individuals under 15 years old whereas in Appalachian English, a-prefixing is used by speakers of all ages.

Syntactic properties

  • The most common environment for a-prefixing is when the -ing suffix functions as the progressive aspect marker. A-prefixing can even occur with gonna (the inflected form of going + to) for some speakers, as in (2), though Christian et al. (1988) point out that it only does so in the speech of older individuals.

    (2) He's a-gonna try it. (Appalachian and Ozark English; Christian et al. 1988)
  • A-prefixing does not have any tense restrictions, as can be seen in (3). The sentence in (a) is in the past tense, the sentence in (b) in the non-past, and the sentence in (c) is unmarked for tense.

    (3) a. He was a-huntin'. (Appalachian and Ozark English; Christian et al. 1988)
         b. And I rode up beside him and I said, ''Uncle Polk, you know, you ain't got nary a cow but the one you a-leadin'.'' (Ozark English; Christian et al. 1988)
         c. He'll forget to spit and he'll cut and it'll just be a-runnin', a-drippin' off his chin when he gets to catch them. (Appalachian English; Christian et al. 1988)
  • A-prefixing is not compatible with nominal forms such as gerunds (nouns formed with the -ing), as indicated by the illformedness of the sentences in (4).

    (4) a. *He likes a-huntin'. (Appalachian and Ozark English; Christian, Wolfram & Dube 1988)
         b. *A-huntin' is fun. (Appalachian and Ozark English; Christian et al. 1988)
         c. *He watched their a-shootin'. (Appalachian English; Wolfram & Christian 1976)
  • A-prefixing is also not compatible with adjectives, as indicated by the illformedness of the sentences in (5).

    (5) a. *The ten a-livin' children are home. (Appalachian and Ozark English; Christian et al. 1988)
         b. *The movie was a-charmin'. (Appalachian and Ozark English; Christian et al. 1988)
         c. *Those a-screamin' children didn't bother me. (Appalachian English; Wolfram & Christian 1976)
  • A-prefixing does not occur as the object of a preposition, as shown in (6). Note that, in the absence of a preposition, the corresponding sentences are grammatical, as shown in (7):

    (6) a. *He got sick from a-workin' so hard. (Appalachian English; Wolfram 1976)
         b. *He makes money by a-buildin' houses. (Appalachian English; Wolfram 1976)
    (7) a. He got sick a-workin' so hard. (Appalachian English; Wolfram 1976)
         b. He makes money a-buildin' houses. (Appalachian English; Wolfram 1976)
  • In coordinated prepositional phrases, however, a-prefixing may occur on the second conjunct, as in (8).

    (8) a. He makes money by restorin' houses and a-buildin' houses. (Appalachian and Ozark English; Christian et al. 1988)
         b. He got sick from workin' and a-tryin' too hard. (Appalachian and Ozark English; Christian et al. 1988)
  • A-prefixing is not restricted to affirmative contexts. It can also occur in negative sentences and questions. In Christian et al.’s (1988) study, the choice between the assertion in (9a) and the negative sentence in (9b) was not statistically significant. Similarly, there was no preference of wellformedness between the assertion in (10a) and the question in (10b).

    (9) a. John was a-talkin' so loud my eardrums hurt. (Appalachian and Ozark English; Christian et al. 1988)
         b. John wasn't a-talkin' loud enough to hear. (Appalachian and Ozark English; Christian et al. 1988)
    (10) a. She was a-goin' to the show. (Appalachian and Ozark English; Christian et al. 1988)
           b. Was she a-goin' to the show? (Appalachian and Ozark English; Christian et al. 1988)

Semantic properties

Many researchers have attempted to uncover the semantic properties of a-prefixing but all have characterized their proposed meanings as tendencies (for an overview, see Montgomery 2009). Some researchers have suggested that there is "no formal evidence for a distinct semantic category" (Wolfram 1977, Montgomery 2009). Others have suggested that the meaning is discourse-related (Feagin 1979, Christian et al. 1988). Feagin (1979) describes the prefixed present participle as conveying "immediacy or dramatic vividness," and views it as a stylistic device that adds color and immediacy to a story. Christian et al. (1988) suggest that a-prefixing could be a "stylistic indicator of vernacular style" based on the fact that two-thirds of their examples containing a-prefixing arose in narrative discourse within their interviews. They also propose that a-prefixing has a "stylistic function of intensity" based on a native speaker intuition task which required participants to select between two sentences. Between the pair of sentences in (11), the choice between (a), the sentence containing the intensifying adverb and (b), the sentence containing a minimizing adverb was statistically significant.

(11) a. He was really a-starin' at the picture.
       b. *He was only a-starin' at the picture.

However, the choice between the pair of sentences in (12) was not statistically significant despite the fact that (a) contains an intensifying verb and (b) a more generic verb.

(12) a. I heard him a-fussin' about taxes.
       b. I heard him a-talkin' about taxes.

Phonological properties

  • A-prefixing occurs with verbs that bear stress on the initial syllable, as in (13), but not with verbs that bear stress on another syllable, as in (14). (Stress in these examples is indicated by upper case letters.)

    (13) a. She was just standin' quietly a-HOLLerin'. (Wolfram 1976)
           b. So he kep' a-FOLLerin' me around for a week.
    (14) a. *He was a-disCOverin' a bear in the woods.
           b. *He was a-maNIpulatin' things.

    Out of 44 participles with initial unstressed syllables, Montgomery (2009) finds three instances in which a-prefixing is present in Smoky Mountain English, suggesting that this property may not be robust in all varieties in which a-prefixing is present. The examples are repeated in (15).

    (15) a. There must be, you know, a reason, I mean, for 'em a-beLIEving in the signs [of the zodiac]. (CSME, 1978)
           b. I can remember Dad a-reLAting the fire to me. (CSME, 1976)
           c. They didn't think they was enough that they could function as a church, so I told 'em they could, got 'em a-beLIEving they could. (CSME, 1972)
  • A-prefixing may also occur on compound verbs, which have two primary stressed syllables. The prefix attaches to the first element of the compound, as in (16).

    (16) a. I went a-deer-huntin' twice last year. (Appalachian English; Wolfram 1976)
           b. Way back I guess forty years ago, there was a crowd of us going up Deep Creek a-deer driving. (Smoky Mountain English; CSME)
           c. The dogs lit across the mountain and went into Tennessee. [We] didn’t do no good a-bear hunting. (Smoky Mountain English; CSME)
  • A-prefixing is typically assumed not to occur with verbs that begin with a vowel:

    (17) a. *John was a-eatin' his food.
           b. *He kep' a-askin' the question.

    Feagin (1979) provides a single example from her corpus of Alabama English of a-prefixing occurring on a word beginning in a vowel, which is reproduced in (18).

    (18) What time I ain't a-sewin', I'm a-ironin', or something like that. (Alabama English; Feagin 1979)

    Montgomery (2009) finds many more instances of a-prefixing on verbs beginning with a vowel in his Smoky Mountain English corpus, two of which are reproduced in (19).

    (19) a. Johnny run down the hill a-aiming to go to his uncle’s. (Smoky Mountain English; Montgomery 2009)
           b. I noticed two older girls a-eating something out of a little syrup bucket. (Smoky Mountain English; Montgomery 2009)

    The author points out that sequential vowels occur in Smoky Mountain English when the indefinite article precedes nouns beginning in a vowel, such as a axe, a ear of corn, a uncle, a address. These observations suggest that the compatibility or incompatibility of a-prefixing with vowel-initial words is not a property of a-prefixing but a more general property of the grammar of a speaker.

Historical origin

Historically, the prefix has been said to derive from the unstressed prepositions on (Krapp 1925) or at (Wolfram & Christian 1976, Feagin 1979). Montgomery (2009) argues that the prefix developed from the preposition an/on in Early Middle English. More specifically, he suggests that the a-prefixing on participles arose from the erosion of prepositional on when it occurred before gerundives ending in the -ing suffix in locative phrases. An example containing on from 1594 is given in (20a) while an example containing a from 1611 is given in (20b).

(20) a. hee set before his eyes king Henrie the eight with all his Lordes on hunting in his forrest at Windsore. (Thomas Nashe, "Unfortunate Traveller," 1594)
       b. Simon Peter saith unto them, I go a fishing. (John 21:3, "King James Version
of the Bible," 1611)

Christian et al. (1988, p.58-9) argue that the a- prefix is still a preposition in contemporary Appalachian English.

Page contributed by Sabina Matyiku

A-prefixing data

(open the map in a new window | see the data in spreadsheet format)

A-prefixing in popular culture

  • "Seven swans a-swimming" in an episode of the Wheel of Fortune (Dec. 19th, 2012).
  • "Where are the plumbers, who went a-missing here on Monday?" in the song "Coffee Homeground" by Kate Bush (1978).
  • Particularly amusing to us is the following quote from the laws of Yale College (1795):
    "If any Scholar shall go a-fishing or sailing, or more than two miles from the College, upon any occasion, without leave from the President, a Professor, or a Tutor, ... he may be fined not exceeding thirty-four cents."
  • "Ten lords a-leaping," "Eight maids a-milking," "Seven swans a-swimming," and "Six geese a-laying" in the Christmas carol "The Twelve Days of Christmas," first published in 1780.

References

Allen, Harold B. 1973-75. The linguistic atlas of the Upper Midwest. University of Minnesota Press.

Atwood, E. Bagby. 1953. A survey of verb forms in the eastern United States. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Christian, Donna, Walt Wolfram, and Nanjo Dube. 1988. Variation and change in geographically isolated communities: Appalachian English and Ozark English. Tuscaloosa, Alabama: American Dialect Society.

Feagin, Crawford. 1979. Variation and change in Alabama English: A sociolinguistic study of the white community. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

Hackenberg, Robert G. 1973. Appalachian English: A sociolinguistic study. Doctoral Dissertation, Georgetown University, Washington, DC.

Krapp, George Philip. 1925. The English language in America. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Company.

Stewart, William A. 1972. Language and communication problems in southern Appalachia. In Contemporary English: Change and variation, ed. David L. Shores, 107–122. Philadelphia: Lippincott.

Montgomery, Michael B. 2009. Historical and comparative perspectives on a-prefixing in the English of Appalachia. American Speech 84:5–26.

Wentworth, Harold. 1944. American dialect dictionary. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell.

Wolfram, Walt. 1976. Toward a description of a-prefixing in Appalachian English. American Speech 51:45-56.

Wolfram, Walt. 1988. Reconsidering the semantics of a-prefixing. American Speech 63:247–254.

Wolfram, Walt, and Donna Christian. 1976. Appalachian speech. Arlington, VA: Center for Applied Linguistics.

Wright, Joseph. 1898-1905. The English dialect dictionary: Being the complete vocabulary of all dialect words still in use, or known to have been in use during the last two hundred years. London: Henry Frowde.