Going, Going, Gonna
Posted by Neal on June 29, 2005
A couple of weeks ago I was driving to the zoo with Doug and Adam, and I decided to play a song from this Ralph Covert CD that they hadn’t heard in a while. It went:
I’m gonna tickle a tiger,
gonna tickle a tiger,
gonna tickle a tiger at the zoo.
When I go to the zoo…
Other verses talked about licking lions, riding rhinoceroses, etc. The I’m gonna part is sung as three pickup eighth notes at the end of a measure (“and four and”), followed by an eighth rest at the beginning of the next measure, and then the main part of the verse. At the end, Covert comes back to the tickle-a-tiger verse, but this time he slows the tempo of the pickup notes, and takes a breath between each syllable. It sounds like this:
(largo) I’m, guh, nuh
(a tempo) tickle a tiger, gonna tickle a tiger…
A few days later, I received a copy of Guy Deutscher’s The Unfolding of Language, which is all about the processes by which ordinary phrases gradually lose their literal meanings and are reduced to affixes or function words (such as prepositions or articles). In the introduction, the first example that Deutscher gives is gonna, observing that you know it’s parted ways with the fully pronounced going to because, for one thing, you can’t say gonna when you literally mean “moving to.” In his words, “No matter how colloquial the style… you simply cannot say ‘I’m gonna Basingstoke’.” Also, you can say gonna even when there’s no motion involved, as in, I’m gonna stay home today.
However, what caught my ear the most about Ralph Covert’s gonna was the fact that this word, simplified from going to in fast speech, didn’t revert back to the going to pronunciation even when Covert was pronouncing each of his syllables slowly and distinctly. It ain’t going to anymore; it’s gonna, guh-nuh.
This process is usually referred to as grammaticalization, and gonna is literally a textbook example: It’s featured not only in Deutscher’s book, but also on page 1 of this textbook. But neither of these books mentions the subsequent steps in the development of going to/gonna, at least in the first person singular. One that I saw in a horror novel in the 1980s was Ah moan for I’m gonna (in the speech of a deep Southerner). I’ve also heard of gonna being eroded down to just a in the text of instant messages, as in Ima kill you.