Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

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.

3 Responses to “Going, Going, Gonna”

  1. Anonymous said

    Gonna I can live with. Should of, would of, and could of well never, at least in my book, be considered proper phrases in their own right. They don’t even fit in the “fast speech” category; they’re bastardized spellings of contractions by people who apparently don’t know where those contractions came from. These uses appear to be more common, now that people are using them instead of the simple past tense had. Example: I wish I would’ve bought that couch when it was on sale. Other contractions involving have are not subject to this kind of abuse. Nobody expands I’ve into I of, they recognize that it comes from I have. But let that apostrophe double as a syllable change, and suddenly it’s a whole different story. And an extreme case of grammaticalization can be found on a character who made some brief appearances on Saturday Night Live: Drunk Sorority Girl. Part of his/her act (the character was played by a male cast member) was to (repeatedly) ask “Do you want to know what it is?” Due to her intoxication, subsequent repetitions became “Do you wanna know what it is,” and finally, “Dyawntis?”

  2. […] 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 […]

  3. […] I’d talk about. It’s another one from Ralph Covert (other lyrics are discussed here and here), called “Animal Friends“: Dinosaur babies and cows and pigs And a horse as small as a […]

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