Posted by Neal on May 16, 2010
In my post and Visual Thesaurus column about I’ma a few weeks ago, I speculated a bit about how long it had been around, even if it didn’t make it into print until recently. The earliest I had was a Tom and Jerry cartoon from the 1960s that Doug brought to my attention. We now have an attestation from a decade earlier. Brett Reynolds of English, Jack wrote to Ben Zimmer and Mark Liberman at Language Log to say, “I just noticed [Imma] in the patter on the end of track 4, ‘Now’s The Time’, from the Art Blakey Quintet’s A Night At Birdland, Vol. 2 [Live].” If I can trust the Wikipedia entry on Art Blakey, this recording is from the mid-1950s. The quotation goes:
Yes, sir, I’mma stay with the youngsters. When these get too old, I’m (n?)a get some younger ones.
The above transcription is from Reynolds, and I agree that it’s hard to hear exactly what’s going on with the second possible Imma, but the first one is quite clear. Mark wrote a post on Reynolds’s find, and included the clip that Reynolds had so helpfully provided, along with spectrograms he made of both possible I’mmas.
I, meanwhile, was on a road trip with my wife and the boys. In the car, we listened to an audiobook version of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. I’ve never read this book, but I remembered the TV miniseries of it that I saw years ago was pretty good, and I know it’s been popular for more than 100 years. I also figured that, based just on the title, Doug and Adam were unlikely to ever read it on their own, or even be seen with it, but we could all enjoy it in the car, and no one would be the wiser.
So as we were driving back today, we were listening to Chapter 10, in which the protagonist Anne Shirley has to apologize to a neighbor, Mrs. Lynde, for an outburst of temper when Mrs. Lynde had insulted Anne’s red hair. On the way to Mrs. Lynde’s house, Anne’s adoptive mother Marilla wonders what Anne seems so cheerful about, and asks her. The text that follows:
“I’m imagining out what I must say to Mrs. Lynde,” answered Anne dreamily.
“Pause!” Doug said. “Did you hear that, Dad?” he asked after my wife had paused the audio. “Imma. When was this book published?”
“No, she said, ‘I’m i-MAGining’,” I replied. Then it hit me what Doug had really heard: I must say! Phonetically, the [t] between the two [s]s just dropped out. The only phonetic clue that Anne was saying I must say instead of Imma say was the geminated [s] (i.e. pronounced for longer than a single [s]): We heard [aImɘsːeI] instead of [aImɘseI].
Ha! For one brief moment, Doug thought we’d found an Imma in print to precede the earliest spoken attestation by half a century! Wouldn’t that have been something?