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The pattern <i>to be a-hunting</i> from Middle &#8232;to Late Modern English

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Abstract

The <i>English Dialect Dictionary</i> (1898&#8211;1905), in its digitised beta-version <i>EDD Online</i>, allows for the retrieval of the gerund construction <i>to be on verbing</i>, generally in the reduced form <i>to be a-verbing</i>. The pattern was so much alive in the period covered by the EDD, 1700 to 1900, that its frequency can be hypothetically seen as an indicator of its role in the preceding centuries back to Late Middle English, even though evidence of its occurrence then has always been scarce. This paper&#8217;s extrapolation from Late Modern English back to Middle English is triggered by a striking similarity of distribution: <i>to be a-verbing</i> is documented by the EDD for all British regions except the English North, which is the very part where the participles of the progressive form <i>to be verbing</i> in Middle English had, according to Moss&#233; (1925: 78), the deviant suffix &#8211;<i>ande</i>. My paper tries to explain this strange correlation, also throwing light on the competition from the progressive, which was the accepted form of the written standard, whereas <i>to be a-verbing</i> was the colloquial and dialectal variant.

References

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