A-prefixing

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

(Wolfram and Christian 1976)


A-prefixing is a phenomenon where a prefix, a-, attaches to a verbal form with the suffix -ing, as in the following Appalachian English examples from Wolfram (1976):

1) a. I know he was a-tellin' the truth, but I was a-comin' home.

b. Well, she's a-gettin' the black lung now, ain't she?

In examples containing a-prefixing, the progressive suffix -ing is often spelled as -in’ to reflect a sound change from <ng> (a velar nasal) to <n> (an alveolar nasal).

 

Who says this?

Studies of a-prefixing have focused on predominantly white speech communities. As such, it is unclear whether a-prefixing is used by 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), specifically in Alabama, West Virginia and east Tennessee. Feagin (1979, p.116) mentions attestations from across the United States, starting as early as 1846 (taken from Atwood 1953, Allen 1975, Wentworth 1944) and points out that Wright (1898) observed a-prefixing in varieties spoken in Scotland, Ireland and parts of England. Montgomery (2009) argues that a-prefixing in Appalachian English originated from the speech of settlers from southern England.

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

Syntactic properties

Typical environments

The most common environment for a-prefixing is with the -ing suffix, indicating that the verb is in the progressive — it describes a continuous action. A-prefixing can even occur with gonna (a 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 (3a) is in the past tense, the sentence in (3b) is in the non-past, and the sentence in (3c) is unmarked for tense, showing that a-prefixing can occur with any 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)

Incompatibility with nominal forms

A-prefixing is not compatible with nominal forms such as gerunds (nouns formed with the -ing suffix), as indicated by the fact that the following sentences are judged to be ill-formed:

4)  a. *He likes a-huntin'.
          (Appalachian and Ozark English; Christian et al. 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)

Incompatibility with adjectives

A-prefixing is also not compatible with adjectives containing the -ing suffix, 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)

In prepositional phrases

A-prefixing does not occur with the object of a preposition, as shown by the illformedness of (6):

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)

Note that, in the absence of a preposition, the corresponding sentences are grammatical, as shown in (7):

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)

In negative contexts

A-prefixing is not restricted to affirmative contexts. It can also occur in negative sentences and questions. In Christian et al.’s (1988) study, they asked native speakers to choose between two sentences based on which they preferred. The choice between the assertion in (9a) and the negative sentence in (9b) was not statistically significant:

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)

Similarly, the assertion in (10a) and the question in (10b) were said to be equally well-formed:

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

Some researchers have suggested that there is "no formal evidence for a distinct semantic category" for a-prefixing (Wolfram 1976, Montgomery 2009). Others have suggested that a-prefixing has special conversational uses (it 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" because native speakers preferred sentence (11a) (a sentence containing an intensifying adverb) over (11b) (a sentence containing a minimizing adverb):

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 (12a) contains an intensifying verb and (12b) a more neutral verb:

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

 b. I heard him a-talkin' about taxes.

Phonological properties

Stress

A-prefixing occurs with verbs that bear stress on the initial syllable, as in (13). 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.
(Wolfram 1976)

However, a-prefixing does not occur with verbs that bear stress on a syllable other than the first one. Thus, (14a) and (14b) would be judged to be ill-formed:

14)   a. *He was a-disCOverin' a bear in the woods.
            (Wolfram 1976)

 b. *He was a-maNIpulatin' things.
 (Wolfram 1976)

Out of 44 verbs 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 shown in (15):

15)   a. There must be, you know, a reason, I mean, for 'em a-beLIEving in the signs [of the            zodiac].

 b. I can remember Dad a-reLAting the fire to me.

 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.

Compound verbs

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; Montgomery 2009)

 c. The dogs lit across the mountain and went into Tennessee. [We] didn’t do no good a-bear-hunting.
 (Smoky Mountain English; Montgomery 2009)

Verbs with initial vowels

A-prefixing is typically assumed not to occur with verbs that begin with a vowel. For example, the following sentences would be ill-formed:

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, or 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 loss of the -n from the preposition on in examples like (20):

20)  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)

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

A-prefixing in the literature

See data points from the literature on the map or browse them in spreadsheet format.

A-prefixing in popular culture

The line "Where are the plumbers, who went a-missing here on Monday?" occurs in the song "Coffee Homeground" by Kate Bush (1978), and the Christmas carol "The Twelve Days of Christmas," first published in 1780, mentions "ten lords a-leaping," "eight maids a-milking," "seven swans a-swimming," and "six geese a-laying."

The following particularly amusing quote shows up in the laws of Yale College (1795), quoted from Feagin (1979, p. 116): "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."

Page contributed by Sabina Matyiku on June 11, 2011.

Updates/revisions: August 5, 2015 (Tom McCoy); May 30, 2018 (Katie Martin)

Please cite this page as: Matyiku, Sabina. 2011. A-prefixing. Yale Grammatical Diversity Project: English in North America. (Available online at http://ygdp.yale.edu/phenomena/a-prefixing. Accessed on YYYY-MM-DD). Updated by Tom McCoy (2015) and Katie Martin (2018).

References

Phenomenon Category: 
Tense, Aspect, Mood
Phenomenon Dialect: 
Appalachian English
Ozark English
Smoky Mountain English
Southern American English