Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Why we Come a-Wassailing and a-Caroling

In yesterday's post about the origins of a-wassailing,
I mentioned that the use of the prefix "a-" in many dialects
is a language feature with an interesting history,
one that is firmly tied to the suffix "-ing" and the word "on."

The word ending "-ing" is a relatively new suffix in English.
Although it appears in Old English as -ung or -unge,
 the suffix "-ende" was more often used during that language period
for signifying an action in progress.
By the Middle English period, "-ing" was still relatively rare.


But at the end of the 18th century, the use of  "-ing" endings 
to indicate continuing actions takes off and becomes very popular.
Why these kinds of changes occur, no one can say with certainty;
it is one of the mysteries of language.
But by the 1800s and 1900s, words using "-ing"
to express a short term progressive action  
like "building" or "coming" had become frequent.


The origin of the "a-" prefix with an "-ing" word,
as in a-coming or a-going,
comes from one of the ways the preposition "on" was once used.

 "On" was once paired with "-ing" nouns derived from verbs
that indicated continuing action with a clear start and finish, 
as in the "-ing" nouns "crying" or "swimming."
The Oxford English Dictionary includes citations that speak of "on huntynge"
(on hunting), "on redynge" (on reading),
 and another that says a person was "on slepe" (on sleep).

With those examples in mind, Albert C. Baugh, a noted historical linguist,
tells us that expressions would have sounded like this:
"he's out on building," "they are out on hunting," or "they are on sleep"
--all of which sound completely awkward to today's speakers.


Yet, it was a common word arrangement for its time.
And once "on" followed another word in an expression,
it was easy for people to start pronouncing it like "un,"
the same way the pronunciation of  "interest"
shifted from  inter-est to inter-ust by many speakers.

So "on" becomes pronounced "un." 
Historically, when that happens 
the "-n" sound at the end of a word often drops eventually,
leaving us with the sound "uh," spelled "a."
For example, out on hunting became pronounced out un-hunting.
That became out uh-hunting, then simply uh-hunting,
or in writing, a-hunting.

And that's how we ended up with asleep, 
a-building, a-wassailing, and a-caroling.
So if someone says, "Christmas is a-coming,"
that's not incorrect grammar...
it's history.

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