Thoughts on Imma
Posted by Neal on April 25, 2010
Last night, Doug went to a sleepover birthday party for his friend Ken. I remember when Ken was over here a couple of weeks ago. He and Doug were playing with the wooden samurai swords we got at the Columbus Asian Festival a couple of years ago. As Ken raced through the kitchen in hot pursuit of Doug, he called out,
I’ma kill you!
Wow, I thought. I just heard an I’ma in the wild from someone I know personally, and not just a sloppily performed I’m gonna. (Yes, it is possible to carefully utter I’m gonna, even though it arose from I’m going to.) There was no muddy, garbled mess of sounds between the [m] and the [ɘ], as if he were saying something like Ingonna or Imana. This was a clear I’ma. If Doug had asked Ken to repeat what he’d said, I could almost imagine Ken saying, “You heard me. I, ma, kill, you.” I wasn’t surprised that I had heard I’ma in Ken’s speech but not in Doug’s, because Ken listens to more pop music than Doug does, and 2010 is shaping up to be a banner year for I’ma in pop songs, and not just because of the success of the Black Eyed Peas’ “Imma Be”.
I knew this because I was working on a column about I’ma for Visual Thesaurus. So while the subject is fresh in my mind, here are some of the thoughts about I’ma that didn’t make into the VT column. First of all, there’s the origin of I’ma. In the column, I offer what I think is the most plausible origin of it: I’m gonna > I’mana > I’mna > I’ma. However, not everyone accepts that story. Others believe that I’ma evolved from I’m a-gonna, with the gonna disappearing and leaving only the dialectal prefix a-. Still others take I’ma to have come from a Southern version of I’m going to, namely Ahmoan, which became Ahmo’, and from there turned into Ahma (our Imma) as the final /o/ decayed into a schwa. (Browse through the comments on this Language Log post to find several versions of all these origins.) But I find it more plausible that the widespread I’ma developed from the widespread I’m gonna than from regionally restricted pronunciations.
What about the future of I’ma? Could ma become a future tense marker in its own right? It’s not such a strange idea; this is how they usually arise in languages. The Romance languages’ future tense suffixes developed from the verb “to have,” and the Modern Greek future tense future tense marker is a remnant of the verb “to want.” (For that matter, it is in English, too.) In fact, this is how grammatical markers develop in general: A meaningful word (such as “go” or “want”) gradually loses its meaning as it is phonetically ground down, and eventually is nothing more than a function word or affix. The linguists’ term for it is grammaticalization.
However, several obstacles that should slow down the process for our hypothetical future ma. First, there’s the fact that I’ma only works for I. Forms like you’re gonna, we’re gonna, they’re gonna probably won’t turn into youma, shema, wema, theyma, though it wouldn’t be impossible for ma to invade this territory. More likely, they’d turn into forms like you’ra, we’ra, and they’ra. In fact, they already are—they’re just not showing up in writing yet, the way I’ma has. As an experiment I asked Doug earlier this week, “You’ra go to Ken’s party, right?” and his response was not “What?”, but “Yeah!” He didn’t even notice I’d said You’ra, so eager was he to respond to the actual content of my question. And I’d even prefaced the question by asking if anything sounded funny in what I was about to say.
What about third person singular (i.e. he, she, it, and any other individual thing)? I have a hard time believing in a change like he’s gonna > he’sa, though my phonetics is not good enough to explain why not. In any case, the songs whose lyrics I looked up typically had he gon’, she gon’, and the like. In fact, they even had you gon’, we gon’ and they gon’, instead of my forecasted you’ra, etc.
Another obstacle for ma as a fully fledged future marker is that even with I, it doesn’t work when you want to use an adverb. There’s no way of shortening I’m really gonna to end up with ma in there. The same goes for negation, with structures like I’m never gonna or I ain’t gonna.
For those who read the Visual Thesaurus column and are curious exactly what #1 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 charts in previous few years contained I’ma in the lyrics, here are the performers and titles I left out of the article:
- D4L “Laffy Taffy”
(“I’ma toss da Laffy Taffy”)
- Beyonce Knowles “Check On It”
(“I’ma let you check on it”, “If you don’t go braggin’, I’ma let you have it”, “I’ma glance at this beautiful view”)
- Rihanna “SOS”
(“I’ma put desire in your arms tonight”)
- Akon “I Wanna Love You”
(“And I’ma get me a shot ‘fore the end of the night”)
- D4L “Laffy Taffy”
- Akon “Don’t Matter”
(“And I’ma have you first always in my heart to keep you satisfied”)
- T-Pain “Buy You a Drank”
(“I’ma buy you a drank, I’ma take you home with me”, ”I’ma let T-Pain sing it”)
- Rihanna “Umbrella”
(“Took an oath, I’ma stick it out till the end”)
- Fergie “Big Girls Don’t Cry”
(”I’m gonna miss you like a child misses their blanket”)
- Soulja Boy “Crank That”
(“I’ma pass it to Arab”)
- Akon “Don’t Matter”
- Flo Rida “Low”
(“Imma say that I prefer them no clothes”)
- Usher & Young Jeezy “Love in This Club”
(“I’ma give it to you non-stop”)
- Maria Carey “Touch My Body”
(“I’ma treat you like a teddy bear”)
- Lil Wayne & Static Major “Lollipop”
(“I’ma hit it”)
- Flo Rida “Low”
UPDATE, 28 Apr. 2010: In researching the lyrics, I kept running into the word shawty, which seemed to be some kind of term of endearment, or at least of direct address. I went to Urban Dictionary to find out where it came from. Now, the new blog Word: The Online Journal of African-American English, has a post on AAE vocabulary in current pop hits, and talks about that very word (along with Imma and a few other things).