a-running ... prefix a- before verb.

Mr Bones

Senior Member
España - Español
Hello, folks. I'm reading a Shirley Jackson's story -The Lottery- and I came across this expression or word or whatever it is I can't understand. Here you are:

“Thought my old man was out back stacking wood,” Mrs. Hutchinson went on, “and then I looked out the window and the kids was gone, and then I remembered it was the twenty-seventh and came a-running.”


What does a-running mean? I haven't a clue, but I guess it can be a very simple thing. Could you help me?

Thank you, Bones.
 
  • nycphotography

    Senior Member
    John-Paul Miller, NYC
    It's colloquial, and it's just a variation of running.

    He came a-calling.
    I came a-running.
    She went a-screaming.

    It's rather old fashioned these days, something you'd expect to hear from older folks.
     

    Mr Bones

    Senior Member
    España - Español
    Thank you, nyc. But I don't understand if this adds some quality or something to the current word. Is a-running a faster way to run, for example? Thank you, Bones.
     

    Bienvenidos

    Senior Member
    USA
    Afghanistan/USA
    A-running means that they have more incentive to arrive to the place to which they are running.

    When I told her there were bagels in the conference room, she came a-running.

    The same applies with the others:

    She refused to come over for dinner, but she came a-calling when she needed someone to feed her cat for the weekend.

    Bien
     

    panjandrum

    Occasional Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    Another interesting lesson, though not much use in modern English as we tend not to use the a-prefix versions these days.
    The a- prefix to verbs of motion, in particular, is an intensifier.
    Here is what the OED says after lengthy explanations about the different reasons that words acquired a- prefixes ...
    Hence, it naturally happened that all these a- prefixes were at length confusedly lumped together in idea, and the resultant a- looked upon as vaguely intensive, rhetorical, euphonic, or even archaic, and wholly otiose.
    Don't you just love the sound of that sentence:)
     

    Danae

    Senior Member
    Portuguese - Portugal
    Hi everyone, I've been reading Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens and I find it somehow difficult to understand, at least for an english learner like me... I'm keeping a doubt for about some time and I thought that maybe you guys could help me figuring it out: there's a constant writing of the verbs composed of an 'a' and the verb in the gerund. For ex.: "I was only a-telling, a-coming, a-going to say". I know this book comes from a very different epoch, and these expressions come, so far, from very peculiar characters, but I was wondering what does it have to do with? is it simply derived from the pronunciation, or something else? Is it normal?
    Thank you for any eventual answer to this doubt!
     

    shrek99

    New Member
    English Australia
    I believe it is probably meant to be street dialect for the time. It also serves to develop the character through the use of the singsong sound of a-going, a-doing etc. No, it is not common usage.
     

    panjandrum

    Occasional Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    The use of a- before any gerund/participle is old - recorded from the 16th century.
    Two meanings are noted, both seeming to reinforce the verb:
    Engaged in - The bells are a-ringing, the band is a-playing.
    Motion to, into - I'm going a-shopping. The bus is a-coming.

    Over time the a- prefix has been omitted, but it remained in colloquial speech until broadcast media wiped it out.
    (Paraphrased from the OED and Fowler, with a touch of embroidery.)

    So I expect that Dickens' use of this form reflects its ongoing use in common speech in the 19th century.

    Still, what's good enough for Dylan ....
    (The times they are a-changin')
     

    shrek99

    New Member
    English Australia
    Ahh, also let's not forget 'And a Partridge in a Pear Tree', the sixteenth century Christmas Carol, so definitely archaic.
    On the seventh day of Christmas,
    my true love sent to me
    Seven swans a-swimming,
    Six geese a-laying, ...and so on.

     

    shrek99

    New Member
    English Australia
    That is really interesting! I really don't know much about Appalachian English, but could it be considered a dialect based on archaic English? Just curious...
     

    shrek99

    New Member
    English Australia
    Thanks Anais, I went a-hunting where you suggested and found Michael's article very interesting. Whatever the origin, it is really quite evocative and musical language with its own quite specific rules of usage!
     

    mjscott

    Senior Member
    American English
    My grandmother and mother's older sisters used a'
    with a verb--usually a'fixin'

    Example:
    He was a'fixin' to go to the store.

    I think my brother-in-law in Missouri still uses the a'fixin' to do something.
     

    se16teddy

    Senior Member
    English - England
    The use of a- before present participles is old-fashioned or dialectal; but the insertion of an extra schwa before past participles in some contexts is alive and well in speech, e.g. 'If I hadn't a-been here... '
     

    maxiogee

    Banned
    imithe
    The use of a- before present participles is old-fashioned or dialectal; but the insertion of an extra schwa before past participles in some contexts is alive and well in speech, e.g. 'If I hadn't a-been here... '
    I don't think that's the insertion of something extra. Is it not the mark of the abridgement of something which shouldn't have been there to begin with? It's probably easier to explain if I change the negative to positive here - "If I had have been there". Sometimes "of" is used instead of the 'have' - particularly in Ireland —> "If I had of been there" Ouch!
     

    shrek99

    New Member
    English Australia
    Yes Maxiogee, I agree with the 'a' being an abridgement. Sentences like 'he was a-fixing to go to the store' contain a gerund since 'a' really means that 'he was bent on going' to the store.
     

    se16teddy

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Yes Maxiogee, I agree with the 'a' being an abridgement.
    My hypothesis is that the 'a-' pronounced in 'If I hadn't a-been' is not an abridgement of anything, but is the same syllable as regularly appears before past participles in written Middle and Old English, for example the i in icumen here http://www.bartleby.com/101/1.html. In this hypothesis, forms such as 'If he hadn't of been' or 'If he hadn't have been' are overcorrections / hypercorrections committed by speakers who would naturally say 'a-been' but don't know how to write or say this a- in standard English.

    There was a thread on this subject but I can't find it!
     

    Danae

    Senior Member
    Portuguese - Portugal
    Well, whether it does add something to the verb or not, I'm sure you've helped me enough, thank you for discussing this matter. I was sure this prefix had something of rhythm in it, but I know it might be a lot more than that. You know my difficulty is that I'm supposed to translate several verbs with the a-prefix, and I don't find any equivalent in portuguese... it is those peculiarities that can ruin a translation. Anyway, thanks for the research!;) I'm still a-looking for something that fits. :D:p
     

    Danae

    Senior Member
    Portuguese - Portugal
    I suppose not, since that verb is formed by the latin element ad- ...
     

    panjandrum

    Occasional Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    I don't detect any real difference of meaning between the a-verbing and verbing versions, so I'm not convinced you need to worry about these in translation. Of course these forms may be used to create an archaic effect in English. I don't know if you can find any equivalent technique in another language - I mean, a way to use your own language to create the same effect as a- prefixes create in English.
     

    Veraz

    Senior Member
    Spain Spanish
    England. Year 1775.

    Mr. A told something really odd to Mr. B, so that Mr. B would report it to other people. B says: "Bust me if I don't think he'd been a drinking!". I guess this is a colloquial manner of speech to say "if I don't think he had been drinking".
     

    ewie

    Senior Member
    English English
    Hello again Veraz. That a- is a prefix you used to see a lot on the front of -ing words (it's a relic from Old English ge-, I believe). It now sounds very old-fashioned, but folk sometimes still use it for comic effect.
     

    emma42

    Senior Member
    British English
    I would rather say "archaic", than "old-fashioned", and I'm sure Ewie would agree.

    You will see a' + present participle in lots of old folk songs, but don't use it today!

    Let us go a'dancing-oh!

    Have you been a'courting today?

    He was a'singing and a'playing the fiddle like a man possessed by the fairies!
     

    Elwintee

    Senior Member
    England English
    Hello again Veraz. That a- is a prefix you used to see a lot on the front of -ing words (it's a relic from Old English ge-, I believe). It now sounds very old-fashioned, but folk sometimes still use it for comic effect.
    Absolutely, but not just in front of -ing words. The Oxford English Dictionary gives the example 'a bed' as meaning 'in bed'. A quotation from Shakespeare's Macbeth (II. i.12) is given: "The King's a bed". The words 'alive', 'asleep' etc are formed on the same basis. This preposition 'a' is described as a 'worn out proclitic' and the entry also gives 'a begging' under the same heading.
     

    JamesM

    Senior Member
    Hello again Veraz. That a- is a prefix you used to see a lot on the front of -ing words (it's a relic from Old English ge-, I believe). It now sounds very old-fashioned, but folk sometimes still use it for comic effect.
    Actually, there are dialects in the U.S. where this is still very common.

    "He commenced to pitch a fit, a-cussin' and a-swearin' to beat the band!"

    Strangely enough, I found an example of this in print, from a Massachusetts newspaper in 1997:

    http://archive.southcoasttoday.com/daily/08-97/08-22-97/c01li098.htm
    He's Cussin' and Lovin' it

    Maybe it's a generational thing. Most everyone I hang around with swears as much as I do, some even more. But my grandparents would definitely be horrified if they could observe me in my natural state, a-cussin' and a-swearin'. My grandfather, who is far from a taciturn type of man, gets a stern look on his face when I say, "Wow, it's hot as hell in here."

    Loretta Lynn sang a song with the title: "Don't Come Home A-Drinkin' with Lovin' On Your Mind".
     

    emma42

    Senior Member
    British English
    Thinking more about it, I wouldn't be at all surprised if this construction were not still kicking around in a few dialects in the UK; the south west springs to mind (Dorset, Devon etc). I am guessing, though.
     

    ewie

    Senior Member
    English English
    I was trying (in post #2) to avoid saying No-one's used this construction since 1823 because, as I suspected and JamesM and Sísepuede have since confirmed, it's alive and well in certain parts of the English-speaking world. (Perhaps, yes, in the Southwest of the UK too, Emma.)
    I wasn't going to go into the fact that I use it often in my own writing [fiction] ~ more to add a kind of quirkiness than for outright comic effect.
    It seems to me one of those curious phenomena in English: anyone who's ever read just about anything, or seen just about any film set in a period before the 20th century, or listened to Loretta Lynn (!), will have heard it and be familiar with it ... and yet it is no longer at all used in ~ ahem ~ 'mainstream' English.
     

    Toadie

    Senior Member
    English
    Yes, it's indeed still used a lot in the US. Mostly only in rural areas, though. It would be rather funny to hear someone with a strong New Yorker accent say something like "a-walkin'".
     

    Veraz

    Senior Member
    Spain Spanish
    Hello again Veraz. That a- is a prefix you used to see a lot on the front of -ing words (it's a relic from Old English ge-, I believe). It now sounds very old-fashioned, but folk sometimes still use it for comic effect.
    I was thinking about what you say here, Ewie. I'm not at all acquainted with Old English, but since it "shared blood" with present-day German, I guess this "ge-" went only before past participles, not gerunds or present participles. In the other thread someone has talked about "a-" before past participles too.
     

    ewie

    Senior Member
    English English
    Sorry for the false trail: that was just a guess on my part.

    (But yes, Veraz, I'm pretty certain that Old English ge- and Modern German ge- are exactly the same thing, a kind of 'advance warning' that a past participle is on the way.)
     

    mplsray

    Senior Member
    Absolutely, but not just in front of -ing words. The Oxford English Dictionary gives the example 'a bed' as meaning 'in bed'. A quotation from Shakespeare's Macbeth (II. i.12) is given: "The King's a bed". The words 'alive', 'asleep' etc are formed on the same basis. This preposition 'a' is described as a 'worn out proclitic' and the entry also gives 'a begging' under the same heading.
    Other examples of it occurring in current standard speech in a form no longer obvious to the average native speaker of English, taken from page 2 of The Century Dictionary (available online), are the a in nowadays and the a in twice a day. The latter has undergone a reinterpretation to make it an example of the indefinite article, changing to an before a vowel sound, as in four miles an hour.
     

    Greg1975

    Member
    Latvian
    The a- prefix appears in the following songs by Bob Dylan:
    "The times they're a-changing", "A hard rain's a-gonna fall".
    Is it archaic or something? Does it change the meaning of the verb somehow?
     

    Dimcl

    Senior Member
    Canadian English
    I believe there's a couple of previous threads about this but I can't find them. It does not change the meaning at all. I believe that it's AE jargon that came from uneducated portions of the US decades ago. I believe that Dylan wrote some of his songs that way to convey that "poor working man" quality.
     

    natkretep

    Moderato con anima (English Only)
    English (Singapore/UK), basic Chinese
    It's been around for a long time, and it's not only American. Here's the OED: an edited version of sense 11 (and retaining only one example for each sub-sense).
    11. Expressing action, with a verbal noun or gerund taken actively. Now arch. and regional.
    a. After be (or occasionally another verb expressing state) and before a verbal noun: engaged in (some activity). Also with of and object. Cf. IN prep.1 11c, ON prep. 12b.
    N.E.D. (1884) states: ‘In literary English the a is omitted, and the verbal noun 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.’ 2003 Daily Tel. 18 Nov. 23/1 The invitation has been such a long time a-coming.

    b. After a verb denoting or implying motion and before a verbal noun: to, into (some action). Cf. IN prep.1 11c, ON prep. 23.
    2005 Daily Tel. 20 June 9/1 Eligible bachelors..meet marriageable ladies..at a country pub to go a-courting in the Cotswolds.


    c. Before the gerund of a transitive verb and its object. 2000 O. SENIOR in N. Hopkinson Whispers from Cotton Tree Root 139 This fish not just moving, it dancing. A-wiggling and a-moving its tail.


    d. Before a gerund used as subject or object complement generally, equivalent to (and generally considered to be) a present participle. 2006 Nature 4 May p. vii/1 Male túngara frogs a-wooing produce a species-specific call to attract females.
     
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