Are the times a-changin'? Origin and Evolution of a-Prefix in English
Ponciano Lazaro, Marta
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Among the many grammatical phenomena that can be observed in different dialects of the United States, one that has garnered linguistic attention is the so-called a-prefixing, which is a morpheme that appears attached to progressive verbal forms (a-going, a-fishing) as a means of emphasizing the on-going nature of the action. Although it is relatively ubiquitous in the English-speaking world, this construction has been mostly examined and attested in the Southern United States traditional varieties of English, particularly, in Appalachian English. This paper aims to provide an in-depth characterization of a-prefixing. In particular, this paper focuses on the geographical distribution and origin of the construction —as very different hypotheses have been posited throughout the years— as well as the linguistic restrictions operating on it which enable us to figure out the contexts in which a-prefixing is possible and most likely to occur. Indeed, this paper argues how it is the interplay between linguistic constraints and social factors what mostly determines its use. First, the analysis presented here shows that the underlying source of the a-prefix is a vestigial Old English preposition (on or at). More specifically, I assess possible historical sources, arguing that it was originated in the English spoken in Southern Britain. Secondly, I discuss some frequency effects, that is, with what verb type it is more likely to occur and, consequently, I show its variable nature. Put differently, I exhibit how its use is not categorical but varies with its nonprefixed counterpart, thus claiming that idiolectal preferences are at play in this construction. Thirdly, the paper reveals that there are specific morphological, syntactic and phonological constraints that condition its variable realization and that a-prefixing mainly conveys progressive meaning, although more proposals have been posited which have not received much scholarly attention. Finally, this paper shows that this prominent feature is mostly an oral phenomenon that appears in many nursery rhymes, songs, dialogues of characters in novels and informal letters. But most importantly, despite the preponderance of statements reporting its unequivocal demise, a-prefixing has pulled through, and it is still found in Appalachia. It has apparently become a vernacular identity marker. I conclude by stating that there are still many aspects of a-prefixing to be researched and verified. Future research could investigate whether the morphological, semantic and syntactic restrictions proposed above still uphold over time and, given dialects’ unpredictable nature, whether a-prefixing will stay in the speech of many speakers or contrariwise, it will fade away as most previous studies announced.