Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

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”)
    • 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”)
    • 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”)

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).

21 Responses to “Thoughts on Imma

  1. B said

    IMMA is fucking EBONICS!!! Why would you dignify EBONICS by writing an article on it??? You would NEVER hear that word except out of a mushmouth ghetto thug that could’nt speak proper english if his life depended on it. People just like Kanye West. Why is Kanye so sucessful? Because there are millions of people with rocks in their head who speak EBONICS and buy his EBONICS filled albums. BTW did you AXE what ESTENTION you were calling? PATHETIC

    • Neal said

      As I wrote in the VT column, Imma is in many people’s speech, and not just those who speak African American English. (More on the word Ebonics later.) The processes that turn I’m gonna into Imma are the same ones that turn interesting into int’resting, for example, which many white people say. I wouldn’t be surprised if you even said Imma yourself; I probably have. The difference is that when you or I say it, we perceive ourselves as saying I’m gonna (or I’m going to); but when others say Imma, they hear it as Imma, just like when I say I’m gonna, I don’t hear it as I am going to.

      As for the word Ebonics, I have always thought it was the silliest name ever created for Black English / African American (Vernacular) English. Knowing that the word was modeled on phonics, I think that expressions like speaking Ebonics has compounded the original silliness. After all, they teach phonics in school, but kids don’t “speak phonics”; they speak English. Likewise, they may teach Ebonics in school, but (IMO), one doesn’t speak Ebonics, one speaks whatever you prefer to call AA(V)E. (Of course, if Ebonics is really what you prefer to call it, that’s your right.)

      • (I can’t believe you responded to that clearly racist and uneducated comment. But, since you did, I have something to add….)

        The [æsk]/[æks] distinction (well, actually, there’s a third option, from NYCE, with a different vowel) has been around since the beginning of English, and it (like every other linguistic variable) has nothing inherently to do with race. It is more a social distinction. (Clearly, “B” places a stigma on [æks].)

        And, frankly, even though I use the /æsk/ variant (with the different vowel), the past tense usually becomes [æst], not [æskt]. (All of these with the different vowel.) (I would, however, still have the /k/ in extension.)

  2. This is interesting stuff.

    I think it’s possible that the -a forms will become future tense markers, but the non-1SG still sound a little strange to me. I would probably understand them if I heard them (and I can’t definitively say that I haven’t already), but I don’t think I could say them just yet. However, “I’ma” has already worked its way into my natural speech. I only noticed it after Kanye’s “I’ma let you finish” fiasco, but it’s possible that it’s been there all along.

    As for adverbials and negation, isn’t it possible that “I’m (x) gonna (y)” could become “I’ma (x) (y)”? “I’ma really kill you” or “I’ma never go to Ken’s party” seem like plausible sentences to me. (I don’t think the ain’t construct would work, but I think that’s because the -n’t clitic has some special restrictions in word order.)


    • Neal said

      Yeah, there aren’t that many adverbs that fit naturally between BE and gonna, so they probably wouldn’t be such an obstacle, especially when, as you point out, most adverbs can be comfortably shifted to come after the gonna, or even sound more natural there in the first place. As for negative adverbs, I wouldn’t have thought so, but upon reflection, I wouldn’t have imagined people would say things like, “I’m SO not doing that!” either.

      • You could also put words like really or [some other word that worked even better but that I forgot while writing this] or even very much.

        Also, I’d like to revise my comment about ain’t: The reason it wouldn’t work is not because of the -n’t, but because ain’t is a form of present (progressive) be. The -a future tense suffix is also (still) a form of be, so it’d be double-be, with both present and future tenses, if the construct were of the form “*I’ma ain’t go(ing) to Ken’s party”.

        At least, ain’t is part of the present progressive form in my dialect. Upon further reflection, it may also be simple present in AAVE. Also, in my dialect, the construct “ain’t gonna” is likely. Thus, I might predict that the -a suffix would apply like this, if ever: “?I ain’ta go to Ken’s party”.

    • Jessica Tauber said

      Great post, I agree that the -a could become a tense marker for all parts of speech (if it isn’t already), and it’s interesting to be analyzing it as it’s evolving.

      Also, thanks for the shoutout to Word.!

  3. Teri said

    I’ll bet ghetto thugs know enough to capitalize English Mr. hatefilled racist.

  4. Julie said

    In poetry and song lyrics, if the singer is going to say “I’ma,” the lyrics sheet has to spell it in two syllables. Since rap is largely written and performed in AAVE, I would expect the third-person variants you reference (he gon’) to reflect the be-dropping characteristic of that dialect.

    But I think you’re right…the whole country, including both dialects, is slipping from “I’m gonna” to “I’ma.”

    For myself, I know I sometimes say “I’mana,” for which the negative still parses as “I ain’t gonna.” But I know I’ve heard “I’ma,” and it doesn’t sound that odd to me. And I’m not sure that I wouldn’t, at least sometimes, say “he’sana.”

    Seems like the negative of “I’ma” is already “I ain’ka.” But perhaps you remember Dana Carvey’s parody of the first President Bush? “Na ga da.”

    Anyway, since when is consistency required? Many Americans, including me, say “That’s a whole nother thing.”

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  6. […] my post and Visual Thesaurus column about I’ma a few weeks ago, I speculated a bit about how long it […]

  7. ASG said

    Last year, a friend of mine wrote a delightful essay on the history of the word “shawty,” which you may enjoy.

    • Neal said

      Great information, especially the objection to the claim on Urban Dictionary that the word (with this meaning) originated in Atlanta, and the distinction between one’s shorty/shawty and one’s boo. (That’s another word I’m curious about: Does it originate from a mispronunciation of “beau”?)

  8. ... said

    People who say imma are FHA and losers
    if you can’t say I’m gonna or I’m going to
    ur just a loser
    and when people do say it I wanna slap them
    seriously stfu

    • Neal said

      Seriously, you never say “Imma,” even in fast, casual speech? I don’t believe it. I’ll bet at least an occasional “Im’na” or “Imana” comes out, even though you wouldn’t write it that way.

  9. I'm 'a said

    So, I dislike how people are using “imma.” it’s not proper Englsh, and it should have a place only on the streets. Eminem used it so many times in his new song “Not Afraid.” He abuses that word. He says I’mma be what I set out to be without a doubt undoubtedly. That song Imma be is also responsible for people saying Imma so much, esp. young people that listen to this crazy sh*tty msuic. I don’t know why , but I’mma is not I’m going to or I’m gonna. I’mma techinically means I’m a, as in I’m a man. now imma man won’t make sense, because you can’t say I’m gonna man, but I’m a man is proper, so keep I’m a reserved as a contraction of I am a, ad not I’m going to.

  10. […] has been around for decades. Neil Whitman has written helpfully about its development and usage at Literal-Minded (twice) and the Visual Thesaurus; all three posts are worth reading, and there’s more at […]

  11. […] friend Holt from this one post back in 2008. You may also remember Ken, who once told Doug “I’ma kill you!” and played the straight man in Doug’s impromptu bit of lunchroom comedy involving the […]

  12. I happened upon this article when looking for something that sounds like “Ammo.” For instance, a PSA on the radio for education, in which a girl says (and I’m not kidding): “Ammo make it.” In other words, “I’m going to make it.” Ammo isn’t quite right though, it sounds more like “I maw.”

  13. […] Thoughts on Imma « Literal-Minded – Apr 25, 2010 · April 26, 2010 at 1:37 am. IMMA is fucking EBONICS!!! Why would you dignify EBONICS by writing an article on it??? You would NEVER hear that word …… […]

  14. Louis said

    Thanks for the blog. Very interesting to see a discussion on language clearly evolving very quickly. I’ve been wondering about I’mma since I saw it written in a lyric for one of the Hamilton musical songs (My Shot). As far as I can recall, I don’t think I’ve ever said it myself before (living in UK, so possibly a regional thing) but I suspect I’ve said I’mana or something similar without really noticing. Until I saw you’d listed Rihanna’s Umbrella using it, I had just assumed she sang “oath, now I stick it out…”, so I don’t think I’ve been listening carefully enough. I suspect Imma has become very popular simply because it is very easy to say and the meaning is very clear. I guessed the possible contraction as soon as I actually saw the word written down. I will look with interest as to whether ‘a’ as a future tense marker becomes normalised.

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