Linguistics 101—People & Their Language

Background and Examples
You know a great deal about your native language. Now suppose I asked you to write
down all you know about your native language in a manual that could be used to teach
others to speak it. Soon after you begin the task, you would probably find that although
you know perfectly well how to speak your native language, you are not consciously
aware of just how much you know. As we might guess, this is the case with Appalachian
English (AppE) speakers.1 They know a great deal about their native English variety, but
they don’t think twice about it; they just talk! For instance, AppE speakers attach the
prefix a- to the front of a word ending in –ing, and they know a great deal about where
this a-prefixed word can occur, but many AppE speakers have never thought about that
information. (Let’s put a hyphen (-) after a- to remind us that something follows the
prefix.) Field workers who were studying language use in Appalachia and other
Appalachian speakers working with them became interested in the a- prefix in sentences
such as He went a-hunting. We can paraphrase the sentence as ‘He went hunting.’ in
general American English. The field workers and other AppE speakers spent a great deal
1Appalachian English is spoken in areas in Southern Appalachia (e.g., areas in Tennessee
and Kentucky).
of time listening to AppE speakers, reading old stories that included a-prefix, and asking
many questions. What they found was interesting. AppE speakers accepted the use of aprefix
in some places in sentences but not in others. They all had very clear intuitions
about good uses of a- prefix and horrible uses of a- prefix. AppE speakers agreed that the
sentences flagged with a J were good, and those flagged with a L were bad, so they
laughed when they heard sentences such as (1b), (7b), and (10b) below, for instance:
Data Set 1: Function of words as different parts of speech
1. a) JShe was a-building a house.
b) LA-building houses is hard work.
2. a) JHe went a-hunting.
b) LHe likes a-hunting.
3. a) JThe child was a-charming the adults.
b) LThe child was very a-charming.
4. a) JHe kept a-shocking the children.
b) LThe play was a-shocking.
5. a) JThey were a-fishing this morning.
b) LThey thought a-fishing was boring.
6. a) JThey go a-shopping on Saturdays.
b) LThe a-shopping is still fun here.
Hint: Pay attention to the part of speech or “role” the a-prefixed word is playing in the
Data Set 2: Environment
7. a) JThey make money a-building houses.
b) LThey make money by a-building houses.
8. a) JPeople can’t make enough money a-fishing.
b) LPeople can’t make enough money from a-fishing.
9. a) JPeople destroy the beauty of the island a-littering
b) LPeople destroy the beauty of the island through a-littering.
Hint: Pay attention to the place in the sentence the a-prefixed word occurs or where it
occurs in relation to other words.
Data Set 3: Pronunciation (The accent mark indicates stress.)
10. a) JShe was a-fóllowing the trail.
b) LShe was a-discóvering the trail.
11. a) JShe was a-hóllering the chant.
b) LShe was a-repéating the chant.
12. a) JThey were a-fíguring the change.
b) LThey were a-forgétting the change.
Hint: Pay attention to the stress pattern of the a-prefixed word.
AppE speakers have clear intuitions about a-prefixed sentences just as general American
English speakers have clear intuitions about the sentences JHe is jogging. and LHe is
knowing. Of course, we know that AppE is not taught in schools—not even in schools in
Appalachia—so the speakers couldn’t have learned this information in schools!

Part 1
After studying the sentences in Data Sets 1, 2, and 3, give an account (in your own
words) of the data in EACH Data Set, explaining where the AppE speakers 1) allow and 2)
do not allow a-prefixing. Include two examples from each Data Set that support your
points. Use from three (3) to four (4) complete sentences (ADHERE TO THE SENTENCE
LIMIT) in your clear and concise account of the sentences in EACH data set, which must be
in the following format:
Generalization about Data Set 1
AppE speakers use a-prefixing when the a-prefixed word…. but not when it is….The
examples in (1a) and (2a) both have…., and they are good. The examples in (1b) and (2b)
are bad because…
Generalization about Data Set 2
AppE speakers use a-prefixing when the a-prefixed word… but not when it is… The
example in (8a) is good, but the one in … is not because…
Generalization about Data Set 3
AppE speakers use a-prefixing when the a-prefixed word is… but not when it is… This
is shown in the examples in (10) and (11)…
(NOTE: You might be tempted to speculate about why AppE speakers use a-prefix while
speakers of other varieties of English (e.g., general (or classroom) English, varieties of
English spoken in Eastern Massachusetts, etc.) do not; however, we do not have
sufficient information to address that issue, and it is not relevant to the assignment. You
might also be tempted to say that AppE speakers use incorrect English, but you must
resist the temptation to address the data on that level.)

Part 2
In one paragraph, explain the approach you have taken in completing Part 1 of this
assignment. That is, tell whether you have taken the “descriptive linguistics approach” or
the “prescriptive grammar approach” to a-prefixing in AppE. Your paragraph, in which
the first sentence is indented, MUST consist of six (6) to nine (9) sentences. ADHERE TO
• Sentence 1 introduces the main point or goal of the paragraph (e.g. “The goal of this
paragraph is to explain the approach I took in accounting for a-prefix.”).
• Sentences 2-3/4 give a general overview of the two approaches.
• Sentences 5-6/9 address the data (including clear examples) in relation to the
approach you have taken.