I'm a?

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That's not a-the-indefinite-article, it's a-the-immediate-future-marker, as in Kanye West's infamous "I'm a let you finish" interruption at the MTV awards. Steven Poole at Unspeak has a poll, where you can register your preference for how to spell it. (So far, "I'ma" has a plurality of 45%, with "I'm'a" next at 20%.)

Steven links to the discussion that Ella and I had about this back in 2005.

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40 Comments »

  1. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    September 19, 2009 @ 5:24 pm

    See also John Wells's phonetic blog, June 3 and June 5: http://www.phon.ucl.ac.uk/home/wells/blog0806a.htm

  2. Sili said,

    September 19, 2009 @ 6:01 pm

    I don't think I've seen it spelt as anything but "Imma", and I suspect that's why I'd use that form, myself. "I'ma" has merits, though, and while "I'm'a" may be 'correct' (for some value of correct), I don't think two apostrophes in one word sees much use in regular English.

    I use that quirk for "I'mn't" and"shouldn't've" and the like (and some other which I obviously cannot retrieve now that I want them), but that's thoroughly tongue in cheek – and I'm not even sure I'm able to slur my words that much together in speech.

  3. Karen said,

    September 19, 2009 @ 7:44 pm

    I'm seeing it as "I'mma," as here: http://kanyegate.tumblr.com/

  4. J. W. Brewer said,

    September 19, 2009 @ 7:50 pm

    Interesting that the prior 2005 myl discussion also quotes Kanye West. But the assumption there and in some of the other linked places that this is a distinctively BVE usage with parallels in West Indian creoles is perhaps somewhat undercut by the very whitebread, as it were, hit song "Baby I'm-a Want You" (by Bread, #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 12/71). Hard to search for random examples that will get you "I'm a [VERB]" while filtering out "I'm a [NOUN]" but looking for "I'm a gonna" in song lyrics gets you lots of country & western (broadly construed) examples. Of course, there's some substantial overlap between BVE and the sort of rural Southern white dialects that might be reflected in C&W, but I would think that those shared features would tend not to be the same features BVE might share with West Indian creoles.

    There's also the separate and perhaps unrelated usage of a+present participle, as in "a-movin' and a-groovin'."

  5. Walter Underwood said,

    September 19, 2009 @ 8:03 pm

    I vote for "Ima", in honor of Ima Hogg.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ima_Hogg

  6. Carl said,

    September 19, 2009 @ 8:13 pm

    But Ima Hogg is a hog, not someone who is going to be a hog. There's a pause or stop of some kind between the m and the a that makes "I'mma let you finish" sound different than "I'm a little Finnish on my mother's side."

  7. fiddler said,

    September 19, 2009 @ 9:31 pm

    I think it's a contraction of I'm and gonna. Keep the I'm, lose the gonn. I'm a…

  8. Mark F. said,

    September 19, 2009 @ 9:46 pm

    This makes me think of ahmoan and ommina, which are also rarely rendered exactly as said.

  9. John Cowan said,

    September 19, 2009 @ 11:17 pm

    I favor "I'm a-".

  10. Robert Coren said,

    September 19, 2009 @ 11:46 pm

    I was thinking "I'm-a", but I seem to be in a distinct minority.

    Does this construction exist in other than first-person singular?

  11. John Lawler said,

    September 20, 2009 @ 12:27 am

    When I say it, which is not too often, it's not with a full diphthong /ay/.
    It's /ám:ə/, and the /m:/ has to be long.
    So I'd vote (if it matters) for Amma, capitalized like I'm'a, but without apostrophication.
    No doubt that's too unEnglish for most eyes, but it's what it sounds like.

  12. Charles said,

    September 20, 2009 @ 2:22 am

    The use of "I'ma" in English also reminds me of the Quebec French usage "m'as (infinitif)", for example "M'as te dire pourquoi" (http://www.learncanadianfrench.com/2009/02/quebec-french-accent-canada-vais-vas.html).

  13. Troy S. said,

    September 20, 2009 @ 2:28 am

    On the use of multiple apostrophes, Lewis Carroll seemed fond of it, but other than a few naval terms which are probably written in dialectic anyway (fo'c'sle and bo's'n) I can't think of any other instances.

  14. Nate said,

    September 20, 2009 @ 6:01 am

    I've mostly seen it written as "Imma" or "Ima" in the titles and lyrics of songs, and the versions with the first apostrophe in more scholarly contexts (such as here). I've always just written it as "Imma" (like "gonna" and "wanna") because that's how I first saw it transcribed.

  15. Jesse Sheidlower said,

    September 20, 2009 @ 8:07 am

    At the entry for _go_ v. A. 4.e., the Dictionary of American Regional English gives evidence for this back to 1954, and even then with the comment, "Such departures from standard speech are probably more or less general in the South."

  16. Sili said,

    September 20, 2009 @ 9:43 am

    Thanks for reminding me, Troy. I wanted to look those up and include them, but I have the attentionspan of a gnat.

  17. Bradley Skaggs said,

    September 20, 2009 @ 11:46 am

    I really think this says it best.

  18. rolig said,

    September 20, 2009 @ 1:34 pm

    Based on the traditional way we use the apostrophe to indicated elision, I would suggest "I'm 'a", though I recognize that many word-processing programs would have trouble rendering this as an apostrophe rather than an open single quotation mark.

  19. Aaron Davies said,

    September 20, 2009 @ 2:17 pm

    @rolig: indeed, i'm surprised wordpress didn't mangle it into an open single quote. it does very strange things to most quote marks, and you have to type them yourself to override it: “I’m ’a let you finish.” (done on a mac by fiddling with option, shift, and the square bracket keys.)

  20. DF said,

    September 20, 2009 @ 4:27 pm

    For those of us who lived earlier in the 20th century, it was always clear that this "I'm a" thing was a contraction of "I'm going to," and back then, it was pronounced "oh," as in "go." It used to sound like "Ah'm oh," and that's how I'd spell it. Old school, representing.

  21. Steve Kass said,

    September 20, 2009 @ 8:26 pm

    I'mna guess the m is sometimes longish because it's short for the trisyllabic version: I'mna.

    I'mna go now.

  22. Ron Brooks said,

    September 20, 2009 @ 9:48 pm

    Maybe someone could help me with this question. If we use the simple phrase _I'm a_, would there actually be an occasion where _a_ as the immediate future marker could be confused with _a_ as an indefinite article? Every example I come up with requires some type of verb which follows the _I'm a_ that keeps the distinction clear. (I would say barring potential clashes of meaning, we should just go with the simpler _I'm a_.)

  23. Ron Brooks said,

    September 20, 2009 @ 10:02 pm

    Wow… two minutes after I posted the question, my mind flashed on an example of a potential clash of meaning: "I'm a vote for I'm a." Of course there are too many meanings there… almost a crash blossom. I guess that means I'ma vote for I'ma.

  24. The effin' bear said,

    September 20, 2009 @ 11:55 pm

    In online chats, my friends and I use imma.

  25. Ted said,

    September 20, 2009 @ 11:59 pm

    It should not Imma. It's setting off all sorts of red flags in my grammar.

    Since if you wanna use Imma, then you should be constrained to use the following forms in addition (via extension of analogy):

    {Hessa, Shessa, Werra, Theyssa, Youssa, …}

    Or not?

    I vote for Ima, or perhaps I'm a-.

  26. Nate said,

    September 21, 2009 @ 2:39 am

    Incidentally, Urban Dictionary had "Imma Let You Finish" as their WotD for September 17th. I'd link to the term's page itself except the entry at the top is somewhat less than appropriate for the conversation here.

    There's also an entry for "I'mma let you finish," but no discrete entries for "I'ma let…" or "Ima let…".

    Just in case anyone was wondering.

  27. Nathan Myers said,

    September 21, 2009 @ 3:10 am

    I'm'a say "I'm'a" all the way. Two apostrophes in a word is as English as fish'n'chips. Don't get me started about the St.John's's's ferry.

  28. Black Yoshi said,

    September 21, 2009 @ 5:35 am

    @ Sili

    I regularly use *n't've (shouldn't've etc). Although, I admit the apostrophes are not really in the same word. However, I struggle to think of multiple apostrophe examples other then these (and fo'c'sle and bo's'n)?

  29. Kate G said,

    September 21, 2009 @ 7:56 am

    I realize it has a gonna in it, where Kanye's didn't, but go back to Woody Guthrie's time and it was I'm a-gonna wrap myself in paper, so I would say I'm a-let you finish.
    My favourite parody, btw: http://www.joeydevilla.com/2009/09/15/r-i-p-patrick-swa-kanye-get-outta-there/

  30. outeast said,

    September 21, 2009 @ 7:57 am

    I sort of assumed it was 'a-gonna' (as in 'A hard rain's a-gonna fall') without the gonna. Can't tell which of the many dictionary entries for a- discusses that particular prefix use, but it doesn't feel that odd to me (archaic – like 'a-wassailing' as Ella mentioned, or 'a-hunting we will go' – or dialectical, but not odd).

  31. JimG said,

    September 21, 2009 @ 9:00 am

    Search the pop song lyrics databases from the 1930s to the 1950s for earlier appearances.

    Fiddler, above, probably had it right.
    "I am going to +verb" => "I'm gonna +verb" => "I'm a-gonna +verb"
    => "I'm a'+verb".
    I taste the flavors of Southern American dialect and Italian-American.

  32. Jim said,

    September 21, 2009 @ 7:00 pm

    "Baby I'm-a Want You"

    J.W., that's a different usage. Specifically Bread is speaking in the present, and the BVE usage is a form of "I'm going to", as when my Drill Sergeant, speaking s.l.o.w.l.y for emphasis, said "Bwa, I. Moan. Knock. You.Out. if you ever do something stupid like'at again!"

    It's not that everything has dropped off and left the lonely little "a" behind, it's that "'m'a" is what's left of /mown/.

  33. Mark said,

    September 22, 2009 @ 9:15 am

    I use this word all the time when I chat with friends online. I always spell it "I'mma" and have thought of it as a contraction of I am going to -> I'm going to -> I'm gonna -> I'mma. Since this is a pretty common word for me the spelling "I'mma" has been ingrained in my head as the only form that looks correct to my eyes. But apparently the most common form of spelling it is "Imma", without the apostrophe, and among the people who don't use it but are now wanting to talk about it and write about it "I'ma" seems to be common.

  34. Ralph Hickok said,

    September 22, 2009 @ 3:33 pm

    It's very commonly used in Second Life, where I've never seen any spelling but "ima." Apostrophes are very rare in SL, though, so "i'ma" might well be what's meant.

  35. Christopher Sundita said,

    September 22, 2009 @ 11:18 pm

    I usually spell it "imma" or "ima."

  36. Mr Fnortner said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 1:37 pm

    Fiddler, Jim G, and Mark are all heading to this, which is common in my part of the SE US: "I'm-'onna" (pronounced AHM-uhna). It's a quick step to "Ima". Walter Mosley uses this contraction without apostrophe routinely in his writing. Other authors must; I can't cite them. I am queasy about the "a-gonna" step–I'm not sure it's necessary, or can be attested.

    I am going to + verb => I'm gonna + verb => I'm 'onna + verb => I'ma + verb.

  37. Aleatha said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 9:49 pm

    This is standard instant messaging dialect in my chunk of California (UC Santa Cruz grad student), and I occasionally hear it in spoken dialog as well. It's almost always spelled Imma or imma, but it's hard to tell if the lower casing is deliberate, or just lazy typing (since "i" is frequently substituted for "I" anyway.)

    Some recent samples:
    "i think imma walk to subway"
    "imma go to class"
    "imma be late for class :D"
    "i think imma make one"
    "imma be published! yay!"

    I've always read it as "I'm gonna", rather than "I'm a-gonna", since no one who uses it has any other southernisms in their idiolects.

  38. Thoughts on Imma « Literal-Minded said,

    April 25, 2010 @ 11:45 pm

    [...] 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 [...]

  39. Neutronix said,

    June 22, 2010 @ 9:32 am

    Can It also be considered as "I'ma"(or i'mma)->"I'm to" ?
    Cause gotta -> got to, gonna-> going to.

  40. Andyman said,

    July 12, 2010 @ 10:52 am

    I personally learned it from the online cartoon Homestar Runner, where a character named StrongBad uses it often.

    http://www.hrwiki.org/w/index.php?search=I%27ma&ns0=1&title=Special%3ASearch&fulltext=Search&fulltext=Search

    Personally, I vote for: I'ma as in — "Hey guys: I'ma take the day off."

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