I'ma stay with the youngsters

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Following up on "I'ma", 7/3/2005, Brett Reynolds sends this clip from the Art Blakey Quintet's A Night At Birdland, Vol. 2 [Live], the end of track 4, Now's The Time:

A transcription:

"Yes, sir, I'ma stay with the youngsters. When these get too old,  I'ma get some younger ones."

The point? In that 2005 LL post, I quoted from Shana Poplack and Sali Tagliamonte, "The grammaticization of going to in (African American) English", Language Variation and Change, 11 (2000), 315-342:

Joan Fickett (personal communication, cited by Labov et al., 1968:25) suggested that the reduced form I’ma denotes immediate future, in contrast to I’m gonna, which would be more remote.

Brett observes that Mr. Blakey's second sentence "seems a remote use".

[Update — Some more ima-ology from Neal Whitman:

"Thoughts on Imma", Literal Minded 4/25/2010
"Prime Time for Imma", Visual Thesaurus 4/26/2010

And I'm back from a meeting, and not yet immersed in working on talks and papers, so here's a spectrogram and waveform of the first "I'ma" region (roughly "…sir I'ma stay with…"):

And here's an audio clip of just the "…sir I'ma stay…" sequence:

The part transcribed as "I'ma" consists of

1. An open, fairly monophthongal vowel, which is a sort of [a] carrying over some [r] coloration from "sir". There's no clear dividing line between the end of "sir" and the start of "I" — the whole vocalic sequence is 200 milliseconds long, and depending on where you place the boundary (I listened to the sound in order to place it as well as one can in such cases), the "I" vowel might be about 50 to 60 milliseconds of that.

2. A nasal murmur about 70 milliseconds long, which is fairly uniform in both amplitude and spectrum, although there's evidence of a stronger nasal zero in the 1000 to 1500 Hz range during the last 10-20 milliseconds.

3. Another open, monophthongal vowel, about 40-50 milliseconds long.

So to sum up, we've got a vowel+nasal+vowel sequence, about 160 milliseconds long in total.

Here's a spectrogram of the second "I'ma" region:

And an audio clip:

Here the part transcribed as "I'ma" consists of

1. An open vowel, with fairly clear boundaries, about 50 milliseconds long.

2. A nasal murmur, about 60 milliseconds long, with a hint of a spectral change during the last 15 milliseconds or so.

3. A brief vowel about 20 milliseconds long, somewhat gradually shading into a velar approximant that is the reflex of the /g/ in "get".

Thus we again have a vowel+nasal+vowel sequence, pretty much the same as the first one except that it's somewhat shorter.

If there's a swallowed "gonna" in there, it's well hidden…

Also, David Bamman has been inducing demographics in the publicly-available twitter stream, normalizing by  tweet volume, and plotting on a map using the google charts API.  The map for "I'ma" is here, and for "Imma" here. (This is worth a post of its own…)]


  1. Wild Goose Chase said,

    May 14, 2010 @ 11:26 am

    I actually hear a difference between the two. In the second case, I hear "I'm gon' get some younger ones." Anybody else hear it that way? That would be a example of Fickett's rule.

    [(myl) Brett originally transcribed the second one as "I'm (?n)a". I listened to that bit with a waveform editor, and heard just "I'm a", but I didn't have time for a detailed analysis. Maybe later, or maybe someone else will do it. You're right that if there's a remnant of gonna, it would be a point for Fickett rather than against.

    (Update — some additional analysis added, which makes it seem implausible that there's a velar anywhere in the transition from the nasal murmur of "I'm" to the following vowel.)]

  2. Mark P said,

    May 14, 2010 @ 11:55 am

    Richard Pryor did a routine in which a repeated phrase morphed into something like "I'mo die". I can't remember the entire routine or the phrase that started it, but I'm pretty sure it was "I'mo" and not "I'ma."

  3. grackle said,

    May 14, 2010 @ 12:16 pm

    It seems to me, that in the second case, Mr. Blakey is saying, "I'm-un-a," the well known contraction of "I'm going to."

    [(myl) As you can see in the somewhat more detailed analysis that I added later, this isn't true, in the sense that the additional nasal+vowel sequence that you suggest just isn't there. Why you (and others) hear it is another question. One possibility is that you think that you ought to hear it, and your brain fills in the sound appropriately. Similar phenomena were explored in the 1970s by Warren and others under the name of "the phoneme restoration effect". Another possibility is that there really is some modulation of the sound which you're interpreting as an additional syllable. But I'm at a loss, so far, to see or hear what that might be.]

  4. Victor Mair said,

    May 14, 2010 @ 12:19 pm

    I listened to the recording about thirty times, and each time I hear something after the "I'ma" and before the "stay" that sounds like the remnants of a mostly swallowed "gonna." Thus, "I'ma [gonn]a stay." It goes by extremely quickly, but there is some kind of blip there. I do not hear this fleeting blip between "I'ma" and "get." Perhaps the speaker is referencing a time between the immediate future and a more remote future.

    Am I just imagining this blip? Does anyone else hear it? Would a sound spectrogram show it?

  5. Denise W said,

    May 14, 2010 @ 12:21 pm

    I hadn't realised that this phrase originated in AAVE. I'd be interested to see more current research on this topic. I'm a US native but am not an AAVE dialect speaker but use "Ima VERB" quite regularly in sentences such as:

    "I'ma head to the office"
    "I'ma read this essay over once more before dinner"

    This is easily understood by friends of mine at Edinburgh University to mean something I'm going to do immediately as opposed to "I'm going to head to the office (tomorrow)" or (said in the morning) "I'm going to read this essay over once more before dinner" – both of which, to me, sound like things that will be done in the non-immediate future.

    While I don't believe it's been picked up by my student friends here in the UK, it's acceptable suburban Connecticut lingo.

  6. David L said,

    May 14, 2010 @ 12:45 pm

    In the first "I'ma" I hear a little hiccup that I can't identify precisely, but the second one sounds to me like "I'm [a?] g'na"… (Meaning that I'm not sure whether there's an 'a' sound in there or not).

  7. Ray Dillinger said,

    May 14, 2010 @ 1:05 pm

    @Victor Mair: If you hear something after the "I'ma" and before the "stay" that sounds like the remnants of a mostly swallowed "gonna" and do not hear this fleeting blip between "I'ma" and "get", I don't see grounds for inferring anything from its absence. Your "mostly swallowed gonna" sound to me like a very soft and fleeting nasalized hard 'g.' I would expect a speaker to elide it when it occurs immediately before 'get' because 'get' starts with a non-nasalized hard 'g.'

  8. Spectre-7 said,

    May 14, 2010 @ 1:20 pm

    His attack on the G in get is fairly aggressive, and I had originally thought it was connected to the I'ma in some way– perhaps I'ma gonna–but after several listenings, I only hear I'ma get.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    May 14, 2010 @ 1:35 pm

    I'm with Spectre-7. I think that he would have uttered a swallowed "I'ma gonna" in the second instance as he did in the first, but the attack on the g- of "get" is so strong that it prevented him from doing so.

  10. Chandra said,

    May 14, 2010 @ 1:39 pm

    I very clearly hear "I'm'n'a get some younger ones".

  11. Joe said,

    May 14, 2010 @ 1:43 pm

    This reminds me of another AAVE contraction "ta'mbout" which seems to have a more specific meaning than the uncontracted "talking about". One popular example of this is Gary Coleman's "What you ta'mbout, Willis?" retort. The contraction seems to be used (as in the example) not merely to refer to what the other person was "talking about" but also to express incredulity with it. I've heard it in hip hop and R&B songs used similarly.

    I wonder if there is anything out there that discusses this particular contraction.

  12. Dave said,

    May 14, 2010 @ 2:30 pm

    At a minimum, the vowel in the second I'm'a is nasalized, it seems to me.

  13. Faldone said,

    May 14, 2010 @ 2:57 pm

    Might be worth while to isolate the two instances of "I'ma" along with some other representatives of similar constructions from other speakers and see if we're as unanimous in our disagreement as we were with the a#n/an# experiment.

    [(myl) We've already got a robust lack of intersubjective agreement: some people hear a "swallowed gonna" in the first phrase and not in the second; some hear it in the second phrase and not in the first; some in neither one. (Maybe someone hears it in both?) As far as I can see by scrutiny of the waveform and spectrogram, both sequences are simply a vowel+nasal+vowel sequence consistent with the transcription "I'ma" in "eye dialect", or (roughly) IPA [ˈamə].

    A good research project for someone would be a systematic survey of the various realizations of the patterns transcribed as "going to". The published LDC conversational speech corpora have 32,533 instances of "going to" and 2,684 instances of "I'm going to", with demographic information about the speakers, so there's plenty of data out there.]

  14. rpsms said,

    May 14, 2010 @ 3:32 pm

    I hear it the way the M.L. has transcribed it.

  15. maidhc said,

    May 14, 2010 @ 7:03 pm

    Is there a difference in meaning between "I'ma" and "I'mone" (rhymes with "groan", maybe one should write "I'mown")? Are there people who use both and distinguish between them? Or are they just different versions of the same thing?

    Hard to know how to write these phrases. I remember reading Mencken talking about people saying "oncet" for "once", which I read as "wun-set", although I suppose it meant "wunst". It left me thinking the discussion was a bit odd because I had never heard anyone say "wun-set".

    Another one along the same lines is "yamean" for "You know what I mean?". I'm not sure if this is AAVE, because I have heard it most from people who self-identify as Chicano.

  16. language hat said,

    May 14, 2010 @ 8:35 pm

    This is a very interesting discussion, which I intend to link at LH; as a jazz fan, though, I must point out that "track 4, Now's The Time" is not correct for the CD reissue, in which "Now's The Time" is track 6.

  17. Nik said,

    May 14, 2010 @ 11:52 pm

    Just out of curiosity, what sort of application you used for those graphs?


    [(myl) http://www.speech.kth.se/wavesurfer/

    But these days, most people would use http://www.fon.hum.uva.nl/praat

    and I might as well, except that I have a bit more control over the display with wavesurfer.

  18. Lazar said,

    May 15, 2010 @ 1:44 am

    Joe and maidhc: Another notable case is "[you] know what I'm saying?", which often seems to undergoe extreme contraction. I've seen it represented as "nome sane".

  19. Aaron Toivo said,

    May 15, 2010 @ 5:41 am

    Weird. As a native user of "I'ma" I've always thought it to expand to "I'm uh", not "I'm gonna" (which always reduces the other way, by assimilating the first nasal to velar – I'Ng@n@). In slow speech it comes out that way: "I'm, uh… get some laundry going." "I'm, uh, go take a shower." That looks like it should be totally awful English, but it's what actually comes out – and I've observed this of others as well. Including my mother, who's 64, though it's possible she picked it up from me.

  20. Aaron Toivo said,

    May 15, 2010 @ 5:45 am

    Erm, sorry, I used X-SAMPA without thinking (it's a conlanger thing). I meant to say that "I'm gonna" reduces normally to [aɪŋɡənə].

  21. Brett R said,

    May 15, 2010 @ 6:48 am

    The version I have, and the listing on Amazon both have "Now's the time" as track 4.

  22. beandra said,

    May 15, 2010 @ 6:50 am

    I also hear "I'm'na" rather than "I'ma" for the second sample.

  23. beandra said,

    May 15, 2010 @ 6:54 am

    It's not an extra syllable which is why it's not showing up on the wave graph, but I think the 'm' of the second sample clearly changes to 'n' half way through.

    [(myl) Maybe — but the spectrum of the nasal murmur (which is about a twentieth of a second long) seems to be pretty constant throughout, so it's not clear what the outward and visible signs of this inward and spiritual [n] are.]

  24. Sili said,

    May 15, 2010 @ 8:55 am

    I'm not a native and I'm notoriously poor at transcribing even clear speech ( for instance I'm incapable of hearing my native Danish 'soft d' as an l), so my impression is likely worth little. That said I can't hear a difference between the two.

    Is there a "Teach yourself spectrografy" course/page out there? I imagine it'd be fun to learn.

  25. Randy Hudson said,

    May 15, 2010 @ 9:03 am

    In the second sample I hear the second vowel as nasalized. In white Southern communities some 40-50 years ago, I often heard /a:mõ:/ — when I first started seeing the spelling "I'ma" a few years back (nobody I know says that, it's usually "I'mana") I wondered why the nasal wasn't reflected.

  26. James said,

    May 15, 2010 @ 9:53 am

    I hear it like Wild Goose Chase wrote.

  27. Nijma said,

    May 15, 2010 @ 10:59 am

    What Wild Goose Chase said, but I hear the second sample more as "I'mgda" which I interpret as "I'm going da" (I'm going to). (I don't speak AAVE, but worked for several years in an office where everyone else spoke it.)

  28. Mark F. said,

    May 15, 2010 @ 1:07 pm

    Is there any info in LLLand about what introspective speakers of AAVE think? I always interpreted I'ma as just another pronunciation of ommina/ahmoan/I'm gonna, more of an accent difference than a dialect difference.

  29. Imma Update « Literal-Minded said,

    May 17, 2010 @ 12:32 am

    […] 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 […]

  30. Scott said,

    May 18, 2010 @ 8:36 pm

    I'm no linguist, but I am a southern speaker of English. I'm not African American either, but all the various southern dialects have a lot in common. So my only contribution would be that when I speak in my local, central Virginian dialect (as I code switch a lot), "I'ma" and "I'm gonna" or "I'm a gonna" aren't necessarily contrasted by how quickly the following action is going to be completed. It's more subtle than that.

    In quick summary, "I'm gonna" is more likely to be used in hypothetical, grandiose threats: "I'm gonna getcha!" or in a defensive manner: "Take out the trash!" "I'm gonna!" We'd also likely use in making commitments we have no intention of keeping: "You really should come check out our church sometime!" "Oh sure, I'm gonna come by!"

    Beyond that, we will likely use the gonna when it just feels right–when it lends to alliteration, or we want to draw out or sentence for dramatic effect. My main point here is that there certainly is no clean rule about using it when an action is going to take place in the more distant future.

    Now, of course, maybe there's a clearer distinction in one or more of the "BEV" dialects, but my guess it that that's something that some linguist wanted to impose on the language, rather than a real distinction of usage.

    But it's also worth mentioning that the barrier between "I'ma" and "I'm gonna" is also pretty porous. If we're feeling lazy, we may cut out the gonna, even if the situation would generally call for it.

    Anyway, hope this might add some little insight.

  31. Private Zydeco said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 11:12 pm

    So they took samples of his voice
    to study it for what it was,
    but they scoped in on it up close
    and it just looked like "dit"s and "da"s to them…

  32. Ted said,

    January 11, 2012 @ 3:16 pm

    I've caught myself saying I'm-a by accident. It's "ommina" (where the i is really a schwa), but if the nasal gets swallowed, what comes out is an indistinct long m sound. I suspect that this is just an evolution along the path {I'm going to} -> {I'm gonna} -> {Ommina} -> {I'm-a}.

  33. Tom Storer said,

    July 31, 2012 @ 1:45 pm

    Interesting discussion. I grew up with many African-American friends, neighbors and classmates, so I always heard "I'ma" as simply a part of that vernacular, very commonly used. As for its origins, my gut feeling is that it evolved from "I'm 'on'", pronounced ah-moan, a shortening of "I'm going to" which is a less frequently used alternative. Why? Because the counterparts of "I'ma" are pronounced "you goan," "he/she goan," "we goan" and "they goan."

    And don't forget the interrogative form. I remember at age 9 or 10 hearing a friend who was faced with a dilemma anxiously repeating, "What I'ma do? What I'ma do?"

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