4

A stanza from a song called John Paul Jones by Johnny Horton:

When John Paul was a captain in the U.S. Naval Band
A fightin' for the glory and the freedom of our land
He made those British captains wish that they were on dry land
He sent their mighty vessels to the bottom of the sea
He took their bags of treasure and he sank their chests of tea
He gave his blood for all free men and his life for liberty

The only thing I know is that this type of grammar is usually only used in old songs and poems, but I don't think I know how to actually understated it. I asked an American friend of mine, but he couldn't give me a definitive answer as to how one should understand it, only that this is some kind of manner of speech that's mostly used in old poetry and songs.

7

The "a-" prefix is not part of standard English grammar. It is used in some dialects of English (especially the American South, I think) with progressive present verbs that end with -ing. In my experience, it does not provide any extra meaning.

It is usually written a prefix with a hyphen (not as a separate word): He's a-runnin', She's a-comin', We come a-wassailing, etc.

Here's a high-level answer from ELU: The times they are a-changin'

One answer on ELU suggests this a corruption of an Old English construction, in which on was used to make a verb progressive:. In Old English (hundreds and hundreds of years ago), present verbs were not progressive unless prefixed by "on": "the times change" versus "the times are on changing."

This is certainly consistent with the fact that "a-" prefix is only used with progressive -ing present participles. In modern usage, I think it is used purely as an intensifier or to help the meter in poems or songs. (However, I don't speak a dialect of English that uses the prefix normally, so I'm not 100% sure.)

  • Interestingly, I think you only see the a- prefix with the -ing ending shorted to -in. "We are a-fightin'", not "We are a fighting", etc. – Jay Feb 16 '15 at 21:13
  • 1
    See also this. The OE construction did not employ an article: it was simply on + noun/gerund, as in on life > alive, on changing > a-changing. – StoneyB Feb 16 '15 at 22:07
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    @Jay Not exclusively. In my youth Arne's "A-hunting we will go" and the carol "Here we come a-wassailing" were spelled and sung with the {ng} /ŋ/. – StoneyB Feb 16 '15 at 22:12
  • My dialect has some Southern elements in it (central and southern Texas, to be precise), and I would say that using a-verbing/a-verbin' is definitely a matter of emphasis, rhythm of the speech, and simple idiom. (E.g., "Hold your horses; I'm a-coming.") I would also not be surprised to see it written a'verbing, with an apostrophe instead of hyphen. – A.Beth Feb 16 '15 at 22:39
  • @StoneyB Good point. I concede. – Jay Feb 16 '15 at 23:32
5

This is indeed a dialectal feature of American English found especially in the Appalachian South, typically in rural areas among speakers of lower social status. I just happen to have a book on American English that describes this dialect feature rather nicely. From page 4 of American English 2nd Edition by Walt Wolfram and Natalie Schilling-Estes:

In rural dialects of the United States, including in Southern Appalachia, some words that end in -ing can take an a-, pronounced as uh, attached to the beginning of the word (Wolfram 1980, 1988). We call this the a-prefix because it attaches to the front of the ing-word. The language pattern or "rule" for this form allows the a- to attach to some words but not to others.

That quoted section is from the beginning of an exercise on how to determine the patterns/rules of a dialect feature. It goes on to guide the reader through an analysis for determining the patterns/rules that govern a-prefix usage. If you're interested in the details I can add them to this answer. The general pattern of usage is described on pages 373-374 of the same book:

An a-prefix may occur on -ing forms functioning as verbs or as complements of verbs as in She was a-comin' home or He made money a-fishin'. This form cannot occur on -ing forms that function as nouns or adjectives. Thus, it cannot occur in sentences such as * He likes a-sailin' or * The movie was a-charmin'. The a-prefix may be used to indicate intensity, but it does not appear to have any unique aspectual marking analogous to habitual be or completive done. It is associated with vernacular Southern mountain speech but is found in many other rural varieties as well. To a lesser degree, an a-prefix also can be attached to other verb forms, such as participles in She's a-worked there or even to simple past forms as in She a-wondered what happened.

I also have personal experience with this dialect feature; one of my parents is from a very small town in northern Georgia near the Appalachian Mountains and occasionally uses a-prefixing. I don't believe it adds any meaning whatsoever to an utterance, but it does mark the speaker regionally and culturally (Appalachian South, rural background, likely lower sociocultural status). In other words, when you come across this a-prefix in something you read, you can omit the prefix from the sentence without any meaning being lost. One last quote from American English 2nd Edition suggests that this dialect feature may be a "holdover" from when it indicated "ongoing action":

"...speakers of some historically isolated Southern varieties such as Appalachian English may retain an a-prefix on -ing verbs (*She was a-huntin' and a-fishin') even though this prefix, which used to indicate ongoing action, has long since vanished from standard varieties of English."

  • 1
    Like it is often said, They still speak the English of Shakespeare in Kentucky. :) – user6951 Feb 17 '15 at 5:33
  • @δοῦλος Yes! And there are still "pockets" of Scots-Irish culture in the Appalachian region. ^_^ – pyobum Feb 17 '15 at 6:22

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