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A-Prefixing in Appalachia
An historical view

Smoky Mountain Speech
The people of the Smoky Mountains speak a colorful, twangy mountain talk that reflects their history and geography

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American Varieties Index

American Varieties

A-Prefixing: Quiz!

A-Hunting We Will Go …for a-prefix words. This exercise was taken from Walt Wolfram’s 1993 essay, “Teaching the Grammar of Vernacular English” in:  Glowka, A. Wayne, & Donald M. Lance, eds., Language Variation in North American English: Research and Teaching.

Some dialects of English put an a- sound before words that end in -ing, so that you hear phrases like "a-hunting we will go.” In the sample sentences given below, only one sentence out of each pair can take an a-prefix. Which sentence do you think can have the a-prefix before the -ing-form? Choose - or make an educated guess. If you’re not sure, try reading each version of an a-prefix out loud to yourself. Do you recognize a pattern?

a. The man likes sailing.
b. The man went sailing.

a. The woman was coming down the stairs.
b. The movie was shocking.

a. He makes money by building houses.
b. He makes money building houses.

a. Sam was following the trail.
b. Sam was discovering the cave.

a. William thinks fishing is silly.
b. William goes fishing every Sunday.

a. The movie was fascinating.
b. The movie kept jumping up and down.

a. Sally got sick cooking chicken.
b. Sally got sick from cooking chicken.

a. The man was hollering at the hunters.
b. The man was recalling what happened that night.

The sentences which can carry the a-prefix are 1b, 2a, 3b, 4a, 5b, 6b, 7a, and 8a. Most students, including many ESL students, instinctively get this right, even if they have a hard time explaining why. In some cases, they will argue that the other form just doesn't sound right - and they will be exactly right. The important thing is that a pattern emerges from these sentences: not all -ing-forms can randomly be prefixed with a-, but there is a certain set of rules to it:

The a- prefix can occur only ...

... with verb complements, not with -ing participles that function as nouns (sentences 1 and 5) ... with verbal -ing forms, but not with -ing participles that function as adjectives (sentences 2 and 6) ... when the -ing forms is not followed by a preposition (sentences 3 and 7) ... with verbs that have a stressed initial syllable, not with verbs with an unstressed first syllable: in follow and holler, the first syllable is stressed; in discover and recall the first syllable is not stressed (sentences 4 and 8)

The conclusion to be drawn from this pattern or set of rules is that dialects, too, have their own grammar - dialects are not just “bad” or “wrong” ways of speaking; they are subject to grammatical rules just like any other variety of a language. In this, dialects differ from "broken language" or an imperfectly learned second language.

Suggested Reading/Additional Resources

  • Stewart, William A. 1967. Language and communication in Southern Appalachia. Eric Document 012 026.
  • Wolfram, Walt. 1980. "A"-prefixing in Appalachian English. Locating language in time and space, ed. by William Labov, 107-42. New York: Academic Press.
  • Wolfram, Walt. 1982. Language knowledge and other dialects. American Speech 57.3-18.
  • Wolfram, Walt and Donna Christian. 1976. Appalachian speech. Arlington, VA: Center for Applied Linguistics.
Walt Wolfram is the William C. Friday Distinguished Professor at North Carolina State University, where he directs the North Carolina Language and Life Project. He has pioneered research on social and ethnic dialects since the 1960s, publishing 16 books and more than 250 articles on language varieties such as African American English, Latino English, Appalachian English, and Southern Vernacular English. Wolfram is deeply involved in the application of sociolinguistic information and the dissemination of knowledge about dialects to the public. In this connection, he has been involved in the production of TV documentaries, museum exhibits, and other community-based dialect awareness initiatives; he also served as primary linguistic consultant for the Children's Television Workshop, the producers of Sesame Street. He has served as President of the Linguistic Society of America, the American Dialect Society, and the Southeastern Conference on Linguistics.
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