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I have always been intrigued by the word usage in the title of this Bob Dylan song. Wikipedia mentions that the song was influenced by Irish and Scottish ballads:

Dylan recalled writing the song as a deliberate attempt to create an anthem of change for the moment. In 1985, he told Cameron Crowe: "This was definitely a song with a purpose. It was influenced of course by the Irish and Scottish ballads ...'Come All Ye Bold Highway Men', 'Come All Ye Tender Hearted Maidens'. I wanted to write a big song, with short concise verses that piled up on each other in a hypnotic way. The civil rights movement and the folk music movement were pretty close for a while and allied together at that time.

  • Is there a dialect where the form a-<gerund> is common? e.g. a-cooking, a-cleaning, etc.
  • If so, in what context would you use the form a-<gerund>?
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Great examples. I missed the example from the Australian folk song Waltzing Matilda. I learned about that song in 7th grade here in the U.S. –  Jaime Soto Nov 1 '10 at 17:50
    
I guess I must reply that I have also heard that song before :) cindi, do you have more common examples? –  Jaime Soto Nov 1 '10 at 21:20
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John Brown's body lies a-mold'ring in the grave. –  GEdgar Aug 28 '11 at 17:10

3 Answers 3

up vote 23 down vote accepted

The a- prefix is a reduction of Old English an/on, meaning on, used to express progressive aspect.

English used to have more of a distinction between present simple and present progressive; what we now say as “the times are changing” was expressed in Old English as “the times change”. In order to emphasise the progressive aspect (the times are currently in the process of changing), you would have said “the times are on the change”. I believe this is related to some set phrases such as “on the run”.

The usage is still current in in Dutch as aan het (“Ik ben aan het lopen” = “I’m walking”). In English it’s now used almost exclusively in poetry—normally music, and folk music at that—since it provides a convenient way to fill out a syllable and tweak the stress pattern of the sentence. I don’t know of any English dialects that have it in everyday speech.

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out of curiosity, what's the German usage? –  Claudiu Nov 1 '10 at 20:56
    
Also, are there any Frisian speakers that can give us examples in language? –  Jaime Soto Nov 1 '10 at 21:54
    
@Claudiu: To show the difference between present and past: "Ich mache dich zum König", "I make you king"; "Ich war König **ge**macht", "I was (a-)made king". I don't think it occurs in modern German to mark the present participle, and I didn't mean to imply it does. Anyway, a German speaker would be able to explain far better than I can. –  Jon Purdy Nov 1 '10 at 23:52
    
Incidentally, I sort of equate it with the Dutch (if Google Translate helps me correctly): "de tijden zijn aan het veranderen" is literally "the times are on the changing". –  Jon Purdy Nov 2 '10 at 0:11
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Ver- is just a prefix, veranderen being the infinitive. Aan het veranderen is the present continuous, the German equivalent being am Verändern. The ver- has nothing to do with ge-, in fact the former "overrides" the latter, i.e. verbs with the prefix ver- never take a ge- to build a participle. Observe: änderngeändert, abändernabgeändert, umändernumgeändert, but verändernverändert. –  RegDwigнt Nov 2 '10 at 9:45

It is not true that English doesn't have any widely spoken dialects that use this.

Further, you leave out a big part of the story: "A-" before a verb was a prefix quite common in 16th C. English. It is still, today, quite common in Appalachian English, in the US, which is where Dylan no doubt took his influence.

It can mean "engaged in", as in "He's a-runnin! And fast!", or "She's a-birth, and there's no point in hoping she'll not."

It can also mean "motion to, into", as in "I'm going a-long", "I'm going a-bout", "I'm going a-round", "I'm going a-breast".

Being a colloquialism, its usage is largely regional, and so hasn't gotten enough attention to register on my personal "research radar" -- I, having lived in/come from Appalachia, find it rather intuitive. But my linguistic skills aren't sharp enough to describe precisely how the usage might work, unfortunately.

This is the sort of thing that, if you want to know how it's used, you've got to move to the place where it's spoken and hear it in speech for yourself.

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+1 for the examples of along, about, around, and abreast -- I hadn't thought of a- as being a prefix in those before. –  grautur Aug 29 '11 at 1:19
    
Hmm, but how does "He's running" differ in meaning from "He's a-runnin"? I've always assumed the "a-" prefix on a verb was just a way to add a syllable for poetic meter; I don't see how it conveys any actual semantic meaning in English. –  Jay Nov 28 '11 at 18:51
    
@Jay I think it must have been changed from "He's a-run" to "He's a-running." –  Pureferret Dec 13 '11 at 11:33

Another possible explanation is in terms of epenthesis: roughly, the insertion of a new sound as part of a process of phonetic change.

Here's a speculative hypothesis of how this may have come about in the kind of example you're talking about... Consider the examples he's going, she's changing, he's running.

The phoneme immediately before the verb in all these cases is a [z].

Now, consider that sometimes the end of one syllable ends up actually being pronounced as the first element of the following syllable. For instance, many Canadian and British speakers pronounce the phrase "none at all" in a way that others technically hear as "none a tall".

If a similar phenomenon were going on with the examples above, we might have phonetic breaks occurring before the [z] in such a way that the consonantal clusters [zg], [ztʃ], and [zr] would be formed for he's going, she's changing, he's running.

But those clusters don't occur in English at the start of freestanding words. So to prevent that from happenings, speakers might insert an [a] (actually more of a schwa if you think about it).

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