15

For example in The Times They are a-Changin' (Bob Dylan).

I suppose it's old language. Where does this prefix come from and what does it mean?

22

It is a very old use, no longer used in Standard English (whatever that is), but still to be found in many dialects.

The a- is originally a worn-down form of the preposition on. In OE a standard way of expressing a state was as a preposition phrase with onon slæpe, for instance, "on sleep" = "in a state of sleep". We have quite a few common adjectives and adverbs beginning with a- which are derived from this construction: ablaze, afloat, afoot, ago, akin, alike, alive, aside. (Note that the adjectives are almost never used attributively, before the noun, but only in predicates: this is because they arose not as adjectives but as preposition phrases.)

The English progressive construction, which "recategorizes" an event as a state, arose from the same construction: it was originally on + the gerund of the verb, in ModE The times are on changing, "The times are in a state of changing*. Over time the OE participle and gerund collapsed into a single form, and on was apocopated to a; and eventually the sense of this construction being prepositional disappeared and the a was dropped, yielding the ModE progressive. But it lingers in remote dialects like the English of the Appalachians, and it's useful for songwriters like Dylan who seek an archaic, 'folksy' tone.

Incidentally, many linguists now believe that the progressive construction was borrowed by the Englisc from the Brythonic tongues they encountered. Modern Welsh still constructs the progressive with BE + the preposition yn + the infinitive of the verb.

  • One should mention that German still has this older progressive form: Ich bin am Arbeiten -I am on/at working/in the act of working. And this form is very common and wide-spread. Because of this parallel I would not search the origin in Welsh. – rogermue Jun 7 '15 at 14:29
  • @rogermue I am not knowledgeable about older German, but I believe that this rheinische Verlaufsform is a relatively recent development, not present in Proto-West-Germanic. – StoneyB on hiatus Jun 7 '15 at 14:45
  • @rogermue It must be acknowledged, however, that in English, too, this progressive construction doesn't show up until pretty late, which weakens the case for Celtic borrowing. – StoneyB on hiatus Jun 7 '15 at 14:53
  • @SoneyB The form Ich bin am/beim Arbeiten/Werkeln is known and used in the whole of Germany; even in Switzerland and Dutch this form is used. Along the Rhein this form is extremely frequent and they have their own special variant and spelling. Unfortunatelly I don't know how old this form is. Wikipedia calls it am-progressive. – rogermue Jun 7 '15 at 16:16
  • Does it really weaken the Celtic Hypothesis? It shows up everywhere suddenly after the English blackout (the Norman/Angevin period when we have very little documentary evidence of English at all), and written English was suspiciously stable for a long time before the Conquest (as written languages tend to be). I think it strengthens the case, myself. – Stan Rogers Jun 8 '15 at 3:00

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