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Using a(dash) before Words -
Posted: 10 January 2008 12:23 PM   [ Ignore ]
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Waltzing Maltilda

Once a jolly swagman sat beside the billabong,
Under the shade of a coolabah tree,
And he sang as he sat and waited by the billabong
You’ll come a-waltzing matilda with me

Waltzing matilda, waltzing matilda
You’ll come a-waltzing matilda with me
And he sang as he sat and waited by the billabong
You’ll come a-waltzing matilda with me.

ever heard the poem ? i love it dearly. but notice how this poem uses the word a-waltzing over and over.

now the problem is i have seen this phenomenon often where “a-” is placed before a word. Now i have been wondering for a long time why it is used so and what does it really mean. Is it southern english ?! Is it only used with verbs ?

e.g. When a man goes a-courting a woman…
When they come a-visiting…

I have been trying to look up explanations for this for a long time now but can’t find any...and now im going crazy until i figure this out. Please help me.

Regards.

P.S. also how do u give extra line spacing in these forums !! =__=

[ Edited: 10 January 2008 12:28 PM by Capsulate_Ion ]
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“Like an ox-cart driver in monsoon season or the skipper of a grounded ship, one must sometimes go forward by going back.”
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Posted: 10 January 2008 02:30 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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I once asked this of a professor of historical linguistics and the answer was that “a” in that construction is a corruption of “on.” But the dash is unnecessary.

post Dr. T edit: I think you’d have to go all the way back to Chaucer’s day, at least, to find the origins of it. Probably the reason it seems to be a Southernism is that it has survived there in ordinary speech more than in other places.

[ Edited: 10 January 2008 02:39 PM by Iron Pyrite ]
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Posted: 10 January 2008 02:37 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Hello and welcome!

There’s an old discussion of it here. I recall a longer and, if memory serves, more informative discussion of it but can’t Google it up.  In the one I could find, jgorman referred to this AHD entry, which is good but somewhat Americo-centric.

The OED lists 15 different sources and senses for a- as a prefix; I’m not going to quote the whole entry but the most relevant part is probably this:

2. ME. a-:–OE. an, on, prep. See A prep.1 above. With nouns, in, on, engaged in, at, in loose combinations, which are really two words; as abed, ashore, afield, asleep, alive. With verbs, adverbs, and prepositions, more closely combined both in form and sense, as aknow, ashame, afore, among, across.

and from a, prep.1

13. Action; with a verbal n. taken actively.  a. with be: engaged in. arch. or dial.
(In literary Eng. the a is omitted, and the verbal n. treated as a participle agreeing with the subject, and governing its case, to be fishing, fighting, making anything. But most of the southern dialects, and the vulgar speech both in England and America, retain the earlier usage.)
1523 LD. BERNERS Froissart I. xviii. 20 They had ben a fyghtyng with theyr ennemies. c1590 HORSEY Travels (Hakl. Soc.) 163 His enyme..that was a preparinge to invade his countrys. 1683 tr. Erasmus Moriae Encomium 18 She imitates me in being always a laughing. 1684 BUNYAN Pilg. II. (1862) 209 She is a taking of her last farewell of her Country. 1716-18 LADY M. W. MONTAGU Letters I. xxvii. 88 Orders...which may possibly be a month a-coming. 1769 ROBERTSON Charles V, III. VIII. 65 The tempest which had been so long a gathering was ready to break forth. 1815 LEIGH HUNT Feast of the Poets 11 You’d have thought ‘twas the Bishops or Judges a coming. 1845 DISRAELI Sybil 296 (Routl.) ‘A-dropping wages, and a-raising tommy like fun,’ said Master Waghorn.

I wish I could find that other earlier thread.  I remember quoting some of Tolkien’s verse to refute the contention that such a- verbs were purely an Americanism, but even that doesn’t help; the thread appears to be hidden from Google.

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Posted: 10 January 2008 04:44 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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These things are never simple, as Dr. T’s post and the linked thread demonstrate. I just looked up “ago” in my hard-copy OED, which directs the reader to the discussion under “a,” which in fact is the 9th listing under “A” in that book. It starts off with “A worn-down proclitic form of the OE. preposition an, on.” (Those two being dialectal variations of the same word.)

The oldest examples in Old English, thus, generally included the “n,” but it was dropped in later periods. One example I found was “onwendan” (on+wendan: to wend, turn, go) which became “awenden” later, and finally just “wend” in Chaucerian English, dropping the preposition entirely.

[ Edited: 11 January 2008 07:31 AM by Iron Pyrite ]
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Posted: 10 January 2008 07:33 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Good to see Australian’s national song get a gig on WordOrigins. How many other countries have a national song (not our anthem) about a thief who steals a sheep and than drowns himself rather than get arrested?

The adding of the a- to walzing certainly shows that the practice is not exclusively American. Waltzing Matilda has been around for about a century, but is rare in modern Australian English.

Another possibility for adding the a-, at least in this example, is that the line simply scans better for having the extra syllable included with each a-. Reciting it (or singing it) without the a- and it just sounds wrong.

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Posted: 11 January 2008 06:55 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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DARE says that in the US the a-[pres participle] is primarily found in the south and southwest, and more particularly among the less-educated and rural. DARE does not address non-US usage.

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Posted: 11 January 2008 08:44 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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P.S. also how do u give extra line spacing in these forums !!

I presume that you mean something more than pressing the enter button twice.  But I don’t know what you might mean.

Anyway, welcome.

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Posted: 11 January 2008 11:30 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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If Dr T wants a good Rightpondian source for verbs beginning in a-, can I recomend Treasure Island (1883), where Robert Louis Stevenson makes frequent use of the form in the speech of his seafaring characters, from Captain Billy Bones to Long John Silver himself:

Silver had thrown his hat beside him on the ground, and his great, smooth, blond face, all shining with heat, was lifted to the other man’s in a kind of appeal. “Mate,” he was saying, “it’s because I thinks gold dust of you—gold dust, and you may lay to that! If I hadn’t took to you like pitch, do you think I’d have been here a-warning of you? All’s up—you can’t make nor mend; it’s to save your neck that I’m a-speaking, and if one of the wild uns knew it, where’d I be, Tom—now, tell me, where’d I be?”

Stevenson, of course, was Scottish, but the English parts of his story are set in the West Country, and the dialogue he gives his pirates must represent a 19th century Scot’s attempt at plausible-sounding 18th-century West Country lower-class English,

And nowhere in the novel does Long John say: “Jim, lad ..”

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Posted: 11 January 2008 12:35 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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And nowhere in the novel does Long John say: “Jim, lad ..”

Yes, but does he ever say: “He’s dead, Jim.”

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Posted: 11 January 2008 01:34 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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Zythophile - 11 January 2008 11:30 AM

Stevenson, of course, was Scottish, but the English parts of his story are set in the West Country, and the dialogue he gives his pirates must represent a 19th century Scot’s attempt at plausible-sounding 18th-century West Country lower-class English,”

Is “Treasure Island” thus the origin of the form of English now known as “Pirate”?

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Posted: 11 January 2008 02:55 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Many credit Robert Newton who played Long John Silver in the 1950 Disney feature of “Treasure Island” for the “full package”, i.e. the actual accent and all the “Arrrrrrr"s etc which aren’t in the book.

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Posted: 11 January 2008 03:01 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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Is “Treasure Island” thus the origin of the form of English now known as “Pirate”?

“Inspiration for”, most definitely, but not truly the “origin of.”

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Posted: 11 January 2008 03:03 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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As has been said, the use of the a- before words goes back a long way.  It may not be what we say in the UK, but we still hear it in the nursery rhyme:

“A frog he would a-wooing go,
Heigh ho! says Rowley,
A frog he would a-wooing go,
Whether his mother would let him or no.
With a rowley, powley, gammon and spinach,
Heigh ho! says Anthony Rowley.”

The earliest version mentioning “a-wooing” is from Thomas Ravenscroft’s Melismata (1611):

“The Frogge would a woing ride,
humble dum, humble dum.
Sword and buckler by his side,
tweedle, tweedle twino.”
(The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes).

Ravenscroft was a chorister of St Paul’s Cathedral and then music master of Christ’s Hospital.  Ravenscroft’s family appear to have come from Cheshire.

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Posted: 11 January 2008 10:43 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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The “Cuckoo Song” (Anon. c. 1250) has an example of this usage:

“Sumer is icumen in, (a-coming)
Llude sing cuccu!
Groweth sed, and bloweth med,
And springth the wude nu -
Sing cuccu!”

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Posted: 12 January 2008 01:44 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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Well remembered, skibberoo.  I wonder whether the earlier sense of the a/i prefix indicated ongoing action, or am I talking through my proverbial?

myfairlady2.jpg

[ Edited: 12 January 2008 01:47 AM by ElizaD ]
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Posted: 12 January 2008 06:55 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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I think that the Early Middle English i- in sumer is icumen in is from the Old English verbal prefix ȝe- (related to German ge-, Latin com-), (ȝe)cumen, past participle of cuman ‘come’.

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