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I've been trying for some time to put my finger on what makes us choose, in everyday speech, between Где моя сумка? vs. А где моя сумка?, or Мы квартиру покупаем vs. А мы квартиру покупаем.

I'm not considering those cases where а clearly has its ordinary contrastive function (Ты тут недавно! — А ты, что ли, давно?), or where it strings together a narrative of back-and-forth action (...А он этот бриллиант спрятал. А они нашли. А потом оказалось, что он вообще фальшивый.)

My curiosity concerns just the "out of the blue" kind of а which seems to have no roots in a conversation's context — and indeed often seems to break that context. The best I could come up with was that this а was a sort of call to attention to the whole uttering as something new and important.

Is there a better explanation? Has it been described as a more general linguistics phenomenon (because it has clear similarities to, as well as clear differences from, e.g. the Semitic sentence-initial "and")?

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  • Maybe English occasionally does something similar. If you and your friends are working on a problem and encounter an obstacle and are temporarily stumped, you might turn to them and say "So what do we do now?" rather than simply "What do we do now?" And after everyone silently thinks about the problem for a while, someone might speak up: "So here's my idea..." – ghostarbeiter Apr 10 '16 at 9:09
  • @ghostarbeiter That's a bit different, and would be translated by other introductory expressions in Russian (ну и, короче, or the literal так.) Now if someone else walked into the room, they could ask: "[А] what are you guys doing?" rather than just "What are you guys doing?" "Hey" is the nearest English equivalent I can think of. Or "say", as an interjection. – Nikolay Ershov Apr 10 '16 at 14:14
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    In this situation it would sound natural to me for the person to walk in, pause for a moment and look at everyone silently thinking, and then say "So what are you guys doing?" If you just say "What are you guys doing?" it might sound like you are demanding an explanation or a justification, whereas starting with "So" helps make it clearer that you are just asking out of curiosity. In any case, this would be for American English, I am not sure if British English would use "So" the same way. You might use "Hey" if no one noticed you enter the room and wanted to get everyone's attention. – ghostarbeiter Apr 10 '16 at 18:17
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The best I could come up with was that this а was a sort of call to attention to the whole uttering as something new and important.

That's what it is. It's basically a filler word, similar to English "so", "now" etc. in the beginning of the sentences.

From one of Zaliznyak's lectures:

В бытовом разговоре мы часто отклоняемся от того, как мы должны были бы написать, если бы сдавали редактору свое литературное сочинение. И вы не получили бы одобрения, если бы в вашем школьном сочинении вы начали фразу так: А знаете, что я вчера видел. Между тем начальное а — это совершенно нормальная форма разговорной русской речи: А вот что я вам скажу. А после этого было то-то и то-то. В живой речи с а начинается едва ли не большинство предложений. И это ровно то, что мы наблюдаем в берестяных грамотах. Слово а в начале фразы означает примерно следующее: «Вот что я сейчас вам скажу». Но в нормах церковнославянского языка это слово отсутствовало. Церковнославянская норма его не только не употребляла, но и запрещала употреблять. То есть запрещала, конечно, не в смысле государственного эдикта, а в смысле редакторского давления, которое действует до сих пор. Редактор вам это а зачеркнет и сейчас.

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In all of your samples extra leading "А" makes phrase sound as if the speaker is low-educated or disquiet or etc. So this "A" could be perfectly replaced by any other filler word.

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    Respectfully, it's 2016 and this notion was old in 1966. People of every education level code-switch between colloquial and formal language all the time, and colloquial speech is NOT "sloppy". In fact it often has stricter and more intricate rules than the literary norm. Which is exactly why, no, you can't replace а with just any filler word. – Nikolay Ershov Apr 11 '16 at 7:17

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