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For example,

I have a few related questions:

  1. What is the "a-" or "-a" called?
  2. Is there a function beyond a rhythmic one?
  3. Why is "a-" attached to a word at all -- and why attach to a word at all?
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2  
I think it often denotes some kind of "continuing activity or state" (asleep, abed, astir), so there's an element of tautology when used with -ing forms such as a-wassailing. –  FumbleFingers Oct 21 '11 at 18:14
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Could you find another example of its usage as a suffix? While the prefix usages are all commonplace, I have a feeling that the usage in the third is not the same –  mfg Oct 21 '11 at 20:26
    
@mfg: The third example is simply ellipsis, where -a stands for to. In other cases the -a suffix is mock Italian. –  FumbleFingers Oct 24 '11 at 13:21
    
Interesting question. I was referred here when I asked about the topic in chat after I'd found other evidence and was going to ask my own question. IMO, an exhaustive and definitive answer is yet to come. –  Robusto Jan 30 '12 at 13:55

3 Answers 3

The American Heritage Dictionary seems to see this as stemming (hehe) from when the Old English preposition on was placed in front of a verbal noun:

Prefixing a- to verb forms ending in -ing, as in a-hunting and a-fishing, was once fairly common in vernacular U.S. speech, particularly in the highland areas of the South and in the Southwest.

Such verb forms derive from an Old English construction in which a preposition, usually on, was placed in front of a verbal noun — a verb to which -ing had been added to indicate that the action was extended or ongoing. Gradually such prepositions were shortened to a- by the common linguistic process that shortens or drops unaccented syllables. The -ing forms came to be regarded as present participles rather than verbal nouns, and the use of a- was extended to genuine present participles as well as to verbal nouns. Eventually a- disappeared from many dialects, including Standard English in the United States and Great Britain, although it is still retained today in some isolated dialect areas, particularly among older speakers. Today, speakers who use the a- prefix do not use it with all -ing words, nor do they use it randomly. Rather, a- is only used with -ing words that function as part of a verb phrase, as in She was a-running.

If this is true, then the original sense of the usage would have been a preposition-noun construction. In the song

A-hunting we will go
A-hunting we will go
Heigh-ho the dairy-o
A-hunting we will go

this means that "a-hunting" would have been used in the sense of "at hunting," meaning "being engaged in the pursuit known as hunting." It would not, then, have stemmed from the ME y or Germanic (and OE) ge verb form.

Usage note. AHD goes on to use the isolano of Smith Island in the U.S. as an exemplar of this kind of speech:

Residents of Smith Island speak a variety of American English unlike any other, fostered in long-standing isolation from other varieties. This unique dialect has its roots in the British dialects of the latter half of the 1600s, when the first English speakers set up residence on this group of islands. It is characterized by the retention of a number of older language features, including the use of hit for it, the use of an a- prefix on -ing verbs, and the use of phrases such as of a night for at night.

This is an interesting question. I'm not sure it has a definitive answer, but I thought I would add this into the mix just to get it on the record.

EDIT

@Vitaly found an article ("American Speech", Duke University Press) that references some corroborative material. Here is an excerpt:

If, as according to Bybee and Dahl (1989) and Mittendorf and Poppe (2000), the progressive in English arose, following a universal linguistic tendency, from locative prepositional phrases, it was the erosion of prepositional on before gerundives with the -ing suffix in such phrases that led to a-prefixing on participles.

It's a long article and I haven't digested it all yet, but it's very interesting.

EDIT 2

More info furnished by @Vitaly: From The Progressive in Modern English: A Corpus-Based Study of Grammaticalization and RelatedChanges:

In EModE, the nominal origin of the to be a-hunting construction apparently still had an impact on its linguistic contexts. In the EModE part of the Helsinki Corpus, all instances of this type are found in intransitive contexts (regardless of whether they are introduced by the preposition in or by a-) (Elsness 1994: 22). Elsness (1994: 22) has explained this as “evidence that the -ing-form in these 160 The Progressive in Modern English cases was felt to retain some of its gerundial status: even though gerundial verbs may also take objects, such objects are less likely in constructions of the original prepositional type”. Such a trend is, however, not apparent from the ARCHER data: Out of the ten instances, five are intransitive, while three occur with a direct object (as example 128), and the remaining two are used with a prepositional object (such as example 129).

(128) Here have I been a treating the case as one of a garden, and jest as I’m a goin’ to pass sentence on the malefactors, you tell me they [the supposedly stolen peas, S.K.] were growing in a field! (archer\1800- 49.bre\1845surt.f5)

(129) Soldiers of France - The eyes of Europe are a-looking at you! (archer\1850-99.bre\1867robe.d6)

Apparently, then, the reluctance to use the prepositional type with an object vanished. This development is probably connected to the fact that a- was no longer interpreted as a preposition but as a prefix. As a consequence, the following ing-form was identified as verbal rather than nominal, in analogy to the much more common progressive.

More simply put, it appears that although the prepositional construction was present at the beginning, it shifted over time due to the bias of the general ear toward hearing the -ing form as a progressive verb rather than as a noun (gerund).

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Like so much else that appears inexplicable in English (such as do-support and all of those words that have had questionable just-so etymologies in older dictionaries), there is an annoying near-exact parallel in the Celtic languages that were already on the ground when English was emerging. I can hear ol' William stropping his razor even as I type... –  bye Sep 12 at 19:54
    
Shouldn't it be "On hunting" or "Upon hunting" for "A-hunting"? If I think how the letter U in upon is pronounced as | əˈpɒn | then the prefix -a makes more sense. –  Mari-Lou A Sep 13 at 4:35
    
There are so many historical senses of a- as a prefix or particle or standalone word that many have become confused the one for the other. The OED has 13 completely different headwords for a by itself plus 2 -a suffixes, and 15 variously related, interrelated, and unrelated senses for a- used as a prefix. It is therefore not always possible to say with certainty which of these applies—or apply. Without a more detailed treatment that probes these dozens of historical senses and sources, their connections and non-connections, all answers will necessarily come up short. –  tchrist Sep 13 at 17:18

See Etymology 3 in this Wikipedia link.

From Middle English variant form of y-, from Old English ġe-, from Proto-Germanic *ga-.

  • (Appalachian) used in the present participle and sometimes past participle. They's asinging a song. He's aheaded to the store.

  • (no longer productive) representing the Anglo-Saxon intensifying prefix, sometimes with little change in meaning, e.g. aware.

Wikipedia Old English ġe- link, sense 2, says with verbal nouns, denotes repetition or continuation.


As regards the -a "suffix" in "Come on-a My House", I don't think it really is a suffix at all. It's just a phonetic representation of "to" in slurred casual speech/song.

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The story is a long one, too long to be told here. The OED has six separate entries for the prefix a-. One use, for example, is as a variant of the y-prefix, which in turn has its origins in ge-, the prefix used in some Germanic languages to indicate perfective or completive meaning.

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