Adding "a-" in front of a verb: why?

As in “the times they are a-changing”. Or if you prefer Van Morrison, “laughin’ and a-running, skipping and a-jumping”.

Is there a name for this construction? Are there rules for when it’s used? It doesn’t seem to add any value: “the times they are changing” has the same meaning. Is it archaic/obsolete, only used in song lyrics?

(In modern usage, it seems to add a layer of rusticity. Like if there was a National Talk Like a Cowboy Day you’d use it all day.)

In the two cases you cited I think it had to do with the timing of the music and the words. They needed an extra beat and putting an “a” in front of the word gave them that and didn’t change the meaning.

Etymology Online says it is “a relic of various Germanic and Latin elements”, and gives a list of several different a- prefixes. It then quotes the OED as saying

Most* German verbs prefix ge- in the past participle and I have always assumed that this is a vestige of older forms like that.

*When the infinitive is stressed on the first syllable, which is most common.

German ge- is not listed as cognate to any of the a- prefixes that Etymology Online lists. However ge- was common in Old English and may be seen in deliberately archaic forms like yclept and yclad. It may also be the source of slang ker- in words like kerfuffle although if so, it must have entered modern English from modern German recently, not via Old English.

I can think of several other examples, all from songs. That doesn’t explain why it’s an acceptable way of adding an extra beat without changing meaning.

You pretty much only see/hear it in song lyrics these days, but it used to be a feature of spoken English in some dialects. In North America it persisted in the Appalachians longer than a lot of other places, for example. From what I’ve been able to research, it’s either a relic of old Germanic influences on English or, maybe, an influence of Celtic languages which also have a similar verb construction in the present tense, where the literal translation of an action may be “at walking”, for example: Tá an cailín ag siúl is literally* “Is the girl at walking”*. Normally that sentence is rendered in English as “The girl is walking” but there are some English dialects where it would be “The girl is a-walking”. A substantial part of Merrye Olde England had Celtic speakers prior to the Anglo-Saxons took over, so it’s not inconceivable that that sort of influence occurred.

Or both theories could have some validity.

I’ve heard it outside of songs before, notably in the aphorism “if a frog had wings, he wouldn’t bump his ass a-hopping”.

I await further replies

Why is the OP a-fixin’ to change this?

Some old horse came a-hopping through our azaleas.

I can picture a scene from Blazing Saddles, with Slim Pickens saying “a-whoopin’ and a-hollerin’”. I’ll see if I can find it.

To my mind it has a modifying effect on the verb, focussing more on the action in itself, rather than the verb+object.

Come to think of it, German also uses the “ge” prefix to indicate a generic form of a noun, which is rather the sense I get from the “a+verb” formation in English.

In Dylan’s case, in my opinion “the times they are a-changing” is a more folksy way of expressing it. His roots were in folk music and he was both singing to and singing for the common man. And besides, it fits the music. Many songwriters will compose the music first, then write the lyrics to fit the tune. Perfectly acceptable way to do things IMO.

hibernicus, nice cite, and thanks for the excerpt.

I’m guessing someone named hibernicus, like leo bloom but undoubtedly more so, has been involved in Celtic stuff.

ETA to cochrane, I hear my train.

To take part in the pleasant GQ train (heh) of associations, I looked up this on the bolded, one colloquialism-from-language history on top of another: **Going to go and having to have - are there any other verbs that do this? (and in other languages)

I see what you did there.

In that case, the “a-” is from Old French, derived from Latin “ad-” or “a-”, meaning (usually) “to”.

(In Romanian, this became the infinitive prefix, much as “to” did in English).

Huh. Good interesting. The etymology is on the level?


I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.