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What is the story behind “a-” prefix / suffix?

I'm writing an introductory lecture on morphology and as a familiar example of circumfixes I found (on Wikipedia, but it's since been removed it seems) the a-fly-ing form of the present continuous from older English, which is nice and familiar.

But I got to thinking: Where does that a come from? My other familiar example, the German perfect participle (ge-spiel-t), I know (a derivational prefix in common Germanic). But the a- in the present continuous, I have no clue. Does anyone know where this comes from?

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marked as duplicate by tenfour, Urbycoz, MετάEd, jwpat7, kiamlaluno Feb 6 '12 at 21:47

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

OP: Do you think the question is substantially different from or adds to the one cited by @tenfour? – Kris Feb 6 '12 at 15:07
Nope, pretty much the same question. I just didn't find it before posting my question. – arnsholt Feb 6 '12 at 17:06

I'd say this version of the a- prefix (a-flying, a-hunting, etc.) is the same as aglow, for example, where it means in the process of, in a particular state. I wouldn't call it a circumfix at all - it's just that in those first two words there's also a suffix -ing (again, indicating a continuous state).

I think there are at least a dozen different a- prefixes in English, but this particular one seems to me to be either the same or closely related to the one in aside, aback, etc., where it means to, towards. etymonline(1) says...

a- (1) in native (derived from O.E.) words, most commonly represents O.E. an "on" (see a (2)), as in alive, asleep, abroad, afoot, etc., forming adjectives and adverbs from nouns; but it also can be M.E. of, as in anew, abreast (1590s); or a reduced form of O.E. pp. prefix ge-, as in aware; or the O.E. intens. a-, as in arise, awake, ashame, marking a verb as momentary, a single event.

a- (2) prefix meaning "not," from L. a-, short for ab "away from" (cf. avert), or its cognate, Gk. a-, short for apo "away from, from," both cognate with Skt. apa "away from," Goth. af, O.E. of.

EDIT: The question of what exactly constitutes a "circumfix" in English is tricky, to say the least. I used to think y---t in now-archaic yclept (from also-archaic clepe "to name, call, dub, entitle") was about the only example. But here are guys in Wikipedia 'talk' arguing for em---en (embolden), and be---ed (beloved). So maybe a---ing qualifies after all.

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+1 because the first part of your reference is relevant and constitutes a good answer. But I believe that the second meaning of the prefix a- is irrelevant to the question. – Irene Feb 6 '12 at 15:32
@Irene: You mean the etymonline section a- (2)? I only put that in at the last minute because their a- (1) text referenced it (I didn't include the totally irrelevant a- (3) section about Gk a-, an- "not"). Or are you saying you think the a in aback, aside has no etymological connection to a-flying, aglow? I'm only guessing on that one. – FumbleFingers Feb 6 '12 at 15:54
@FumbleFingers: In the question tenfour found you suggest it might also ultimately be Germ. ga- perfectiveser as in the German past participle, but I suppose that'd be an odd combination with present continuous, which is essentially an imperfective form of the verb. Any thoughts on that? – arnsholt Feb 6 '12 at 17:11
@arnsholt: I'm no historical linguist (or even linguist ordinaire, come to that), so these really are only "thoughts". But it seems to me a-wassailing, for example, is essentially a gerund. So I'd go for "O.E. intens. a-" above, coupled with Wikipedia's Etymology 1 saying the end part is "Middle English -ing from Old English -ing, -ung from Proto-Germanic -ungō." – FumbleFingers Feb 6 '12 at 18:41
@FumbleFingers: Of course I am referring to the etymonline section a-(2). – Irene Feb 6 '12 at 19:26

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