a-

Frank Burroughs, my undergraduate Old English professor, had a spectacular gift for pointing out the continuity between the forms of the language he taught us and the language we students spoke.  “Maybe you had an auntie who said X,” he would say, “which is a nineteenth century form of Y, which is clearly a bit of Middle English hanging on in remote areas.  It descends from this Old English lesson we are about to address…”

The a- prefix before the gerund, he taught us, holds on from the Old English form of on+ gerund.  It is used in The Hobbit only by the Trolls, the Tra-la-la-lally Elves, and one of the spiders of Mirkwood.  These characters are respectively low-class, centuries old, and remote (as well as non-human).  They are “not us”, and their language doesn’t quite match ours.

  • a-thinkin’     02.045 “What the ‘ell William was a-thinkin’ of
  • a-sneakin’   02.060 are there any more of your sort a-sneakin’
  • a-arguing    02.084 “Who’s a-arguing?” said William,
  • a-talkin’       02.104 “Who are you a-talkin’ to?”
  • a-wagging   03.016 With beards all a-wagging?
  • a-struggling 08.087 I saw one a-struggling just now.
  • a-roaming    19.003 So why go a-roaming?

I note that these characters only speak in Chapters 2, 3, 8, and 19, and I believe that they contribute to my predicted pattern of low register at the beginning and high register in Chapter 10 and after.  Yet!  We have seen the tra-la-la-lally elves defy the prediction before.  Perhaps the beauty of the words reveals deeper complexity!  As I wondered in the Poetry post: does Tolkien return us to pre-chapter-10 register at the end of the work as Bilbo comes home?

Only the Trolls use the combination of a- and dropping the terminal g – but they do not use it all the time.  The Trolls also do not use the a- with all their gerunds.

I’ll use the tag “archaic” to track our old-fashioned forms for now.  My imagination tells me that archaic forms are of high register… yet clearly the Trolls and spiders are not.  The tra-la-la-lally elves are, of course, beyond mortal ken.  Will we be able to distinguish between “old-fashioned and therefore only country bumpkins use it” and “old-fashioned and therefore courtly and high-register”?

Only “a-wagging” from the Elves has a headword among the Uncommon Words and has made it into the concordance!

“a, prep.1.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2015. Web. 9 May 2015.

Burroughs, F. G., Jr. Old English. Bowdoin College. Autumn, 1984. Lecture.

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