The English language: What the ‘a’?

Today is the beginning of an MPR pledge drive so let’s serve one up to the public radio fans’ wheelhouse: the English language. You love to dissect the ins and outs of English.

The Oxford Dictionaries blog installment Thursday carries another lengthy explanation of why certain parts of our language are the way it is. We accept them because we’ve never thought about them. They just are.

God help people who are trying to learn the most insane language on the planet.

Today’s focus: a.

What’s it doing at the beginning of words, anyway: akin, alive, aware. There’s also atypical and asexual, in which “a’ plays an entirely different role. Who can make any asense of this nonsense?

Once you notice these a-’s, you start seeing them all over the language. But be aware: they are not all akin to each other, and other ones arise. Aware, for example, begins as gewær in Old English. Its ge- is an old prefix that could express completeness; it was later rendered as y- as in yclept, or ‘named’. Alike shows it, too, as does afford, whose origin we might break down as y-forth.

Meanwhile, the a- in akin starts as of. The word was originally the phrase of kin. And anew? That’s of new. Just like the Old English on, we whittled of down to a in earlier days – and in contemporary ones, too, lotsa times. (See what we did there?) Also like on, of- was once a productive prefix, seen in the Middle Earth-y likes of ofhold (detain) or ofthink (be displeasing).

As for arise, the a- adds intensity, often implying some kind of motion onward or away from a position, the OED explains. The a- is from another obsolete prefix rooted in ancient Germanic: or-, which the OED explains as primarily meaning ‘out’.

There’s really only one familiar word holding onto or- as such, and that’s ordeal. Found in Old English, ordeal first named a kind of trial of pain or danger, such an ordeal by fire, survival of which was taken as proof of innocence. The prefix or-, alas, did not endure its ordeal by time. (That a-, in alas, is interjectional (i.e. Ah!): the word comes from the French a, las! Las means ‘miserable’, from the Latin root that gives us lassitude.)

Affright and allay accompany arise here, as does accurse, which survives in the adjective accursed. The double consonants in these words appear to be influenced by words like accompany, featuring the Latin ad- (meaning ‘to’), whose ‘d’ assimilated the initial consonant of its base.

It’s all old English, except for the “a” in words like “asexual” which is Greek for “not.” Because that’s perfect sense somewhere. Greece, perhaps.

“The a- is definitely not nothing in the English language. Prefixal or initial a-, if no longer exactly productive in many of its historical forms, is still very much alive in our words,” John Kelly writes.

Congratulate someone today who has learned English as a second language. Their accomplishment is massive.