A reader wrote in asking about words like a-maying – what does the “a-” mean? So even though spring’s a-comin’ slowly, and some of us will have to keep a-shoveling for a few more months, let’s talk about what linguists call “a-prefixing.”
Today, this construction can be celebrated as poetic, or stigmatized as incorrect and “uneducated,” depending on who is doing the a-ing. We love it in carols such as “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” which features “six geese a-laying” and so on, as well as with old-fashioned verbs such as maying (celebrating spring by gathering flowers and dancing around a maypole). But if we heard, say, “You ain’t got nary a cow but the one you a-leadin’,” as one Ozark man told his uncle, many of us might simply see it as wrong.
The a- was once a variant of the preposition on, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It was affixed to verbs and began to emphasize motion or process, the idea that something was still in the doing. Fifteenth-century noblemen “rode a-hunting,” for example, while diarist Samuel Pepys recorded that “the Queene was a-coming” in 1660.
A-prefixing was used in formal English until the 1700s, and occasionally even later. Yale University’s 1795 law code includes a rule that “If any Scholar shall go a-fishing or sailing” without permission, he could be fined 34 cents.
We can see the register of a-prefixing begin to change in the works of Robert Herrick (1591-1674). His poems are formal in that they feature elevated diction and are metrically precise, yet they are about “common” people living a “simple” country life. His frequent use of a- verbs – “Come, my Corinna, come, let’s goe a Maying” or “Old Time is still a flying” – hints that a- verbs were slipping out of formal English and becoming associated with nonstandard, rural dialects by 1648, when his poetry was published.
While a-prefixing can still be found in Ireland, Scotland, and England, today the primary home of this venerable construction is the Southern United States. It is a hallmark of speech in Appalachia and the Ozarks. Because these dialects are considered to be “nonstandard,” a-prefixing can mark its users as “lower-class, backwoods,” as Professor Emeritus Mary Jane Hurst puts it, in the eyes of people whose language follows the norms of standard English.
Linguist Crawford Feagin argues that a-prefixing is a key, deliberate part of Ozark and Appalachian storytelling. It serves as “a stylistic device that adds color and immediacy to a story,” as in “All of a sudden a bear come a-runnin’, and it come a-runnin’ towards him.”
It turns prose into poetry – “All of a sudden a bear come a-runnin’” is a series of almost perfect dactyls. Herrick would be proud.