Gonna, gone, onna, a — on?

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From Elmore Leonard, Raylan: A Novel (2012), a representation of the English immediate future marker as "on":

Rita closed the door after him and locked it, hurried over to Mister, got her face down close to his and heard him breathe. She knew it. You don’t kill this dog with one shot. Rita said to him, “Honey, don’t move. I’m on get you to the hospital.”

Rita is a young African-American woman living in Kentucky, so it would make sense for this to be a differently-spelled version of the I'ma form discussed in Shana Poplack and Sali Tagliamonte, "The grammaticization of going to in (African American) English", Language Variation and Change, 11 (2000), 315-342:

[T]he phonological reduction of [going to] is said to be “highly characteristic” of AAVE (Labov et al., 1968:250). Some authors have associated these variant forms with different meanings. 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.

For more on other pronunciations and spellings of reduced forms of I'm going to, see "I'ma" , 7/3/2005; "I'monna", 7/3/2005; "'On' time", 8/4/2005; "I'm a?", 9/19/2009; "I'ma stay with the youngsters", 5/14/2010; "Ima", 1/11/2012; "Prime time for 'Imma'", 4/26/2010.

Although I've heard pronunciations corresponding to all of the other spellings that I've seen — I'm gonna, I'm gon, I'monna, the nine spellings of I'main Steven Poole's poll, etc. — I don't recall hearing a pronunciation that I'd render in eye dialect as "I'm on".

[Update — so much for my memory — I posted on this very subject seven years ago, "'On' time", 8/4/2005, quoting an instance of the same usage in Elmore Leonard's Mr. Paradise ("I'm on tell you something"), and citing the following comment in an Amazon reader's review of Donna Tartt's The Little Friend:

Tartt has written a novel with all of Faulkner's insights about the South in clear, enjoyable prose. She adds the element of likeable characters and believable women, both black and white. She has captured the language of the white "redneck" class: "on" is exactly how we say "going to," "I'm on tell you one more time."


There are several other examples in Raylan:

From Cuba Franks, a 45-year-old African-American:

Now Cuba was saying, “I could get behind you I’d pull you up, but they’s no room. I’m on get in the tub and see can I push you up.”

From Otis Culpepper, an elderly (white) out-of-work coal miner:

“I’m on come in there next,” Otis said, “shoot up the office and put you out of business for an hour.”

From Delroy Lewis, a young African-American:

“I made up my mind,” Delroy said. “I got me a cowboy hat I stuck in a bucket of water, get it to bend and shaped the motherfucker how I like it to look. I’m on face Raylan Givens in a shoot-out at the Two Keys saloon.”

Update — a bit of web search turns up  quite a few examples in transcriptions of early blues recordings, including these two examples in a transcription of Robert Johnson's "Terraplane Blues". I've heard the recording quite a few times, but never listened to this aspect of it.

Here's the first instance (in the cited transcription):

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I'm on'h'ist your hood, mama
I'm bound to check your oil
I'm on'h'ist your hood, mama-mmm
I'm bound to check your oil
I got a woman that I'm lovin'
way down in Arkansas

I hear the first repetition (of the word in "I'm ? hoist your hood, mama") as pronounced something like [oʊn], for which "on" would indeed be a plausible eye-dialect version. But the second repetition is pretty clearly [gõ] with nasalized vowel, corresponding to the more familiar eye-dialect version "gone".

And again (note that the cited transcription renders "keep on tanglin with your wires" as "keep tanglin with your wires"):

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I'm on get deep down in this connection
keep tanglin' with your wires
I'm on get deep down in this connection
hoo-well, keep tanglin' with these wires
And when I mash down on your little starter
then your spark plug will give me fire

This time both repetitions (of the word in "I'm ? get deep down in this connection") sound to me  like a nasalized mid rounded vowel of some kind (e.g. [ɔ̃]). I'd probably have transcribed this as "I'ma" — but I can see that someone might choose to represent the nasalization by using "I'm on" instead.

So to sum up, there are two repetitions of each of two phrases with the immediate future marker, which at least historically is derived from the reduction of "going to". Two of them are just nasalized vowels, for which the convention "I'ma" representation would work; one is a [g] followed by a nasalized vowel, which would correspond to a version of the eye-dialect "gone"; but one does have a pretty clear final nasal consonant, without any initial [g], making the eye-dialect representation "on" a plausible one.  This suggests that all of the options represented by the different eye-dialect spellings are optional variant pronunciations of the same form — though I don't know of any careful phonetic study that would confirm this.

For some reason, the "on" eye-dialect alternative doesn't stick in my memory, even though I've written about it before!


  1. Gary said,

    August 10, 2012 @ 7:14 am

    When I read that, I assumed that the N represented a consonantal n followed by a vocalic one.

  2. oxlahun said,

    August 10, 2012 @ 7:31 am

    I have heard this from (white) relatives in rural west Georgia and Alabama, with a sound closer to "own" than "on". Something like /æm ɔʊn/ (if the IPA survives the comment process).

  3. Brian T said,

    August 10, 2012 @ 7:36 am

    I live in Kentucky, and I guess "I'm on get in the tub" is one reasonable way to transcribe the sounds some Kentuckians might make. On the other hand, many readers are likely to stumble or boggle when they encounter these "on" passages, since they'll first have to process that "on" doesn't mean "on" and then register what it does mean. Using "I'm awn get in the tub" would sound just as accurate to my ear, while avoiding the inefficient misapprehension of a common word. If Leonard is fetishizing minutiae of enunciation to the point of insisting that people don't say "awn," they say "on," I hope he varied the transcription here and there in the disalogue, because even people who say "on" don't say it every time — sometimes they're gonna say gonna or unna or some other variant. (And what's wrong with plain old "I shall get in the tub"? People here say that all the time.)

  4. Lori said,

    August 10, 2012 @ 7:58 am

    I've just heard people say this, speak this way, my whole life. I grew up in the very rural South, and this didn't even slow me down when I read it. It was a pleasure, actually, to read it because it's how people talk!

  5. Amy Reynaldo said,

    August 10, 2012 @ 8:07 am

    I don't think I've seen anything here about the variant "I finna," where the i is sort of a stressed schwa somewhere between a short i and short u. I heard plenty it among African-Americans in the Chicago suburbs in the 1970s. Always assumed it was an elision of "I'm fixing to."

  6. Ben Zimmer said,

    August 10, 2012 @ 8:17 am

    Amy: Mark talked about finna in a 2005 post, "Finna and tryna."

  7. David Adams said,

    August 10, 2012 @ 8:20 am

    What Brian T said. I don't grok IPA, but I'd also have transcribed it "awn", at least from how they say it in Arkansas. I've heard things closer to "own", as well.

    Maybe "I'm'on' " is the better transcription, since I take it to just be short for "gonna" (for the "awn" spelling) or "goin' to" (for the "own" spelling).

  8. Ross Presser said,

    August 10, 2012 @ 9:32 am

    @Brian T: I'm sure it was just a typographical error, but I find your neologism "the disalogue" totally charming as a way to describe dialogue that is intentionally rendered in dialect.

  9. HP said,

    August 10, 2012 @ 9:42 am

    This reminds me of the more-or-less standard spellings gwine and gwineter that was used in eye-dialect in the 19th and early 20th century. When I finally (thank you, Internet) got a hold of actual contemporary sound recordings of coon songs and minstrelsy, I was astonished that even white performers in blackface routinely pronounce gwine and gwineter (as shown in the published sheet music) as "I'm on," "I'ma", "gonna/gone," etc., much like it's rendered today.

    Which leads to wonder how gwine became the then-standard spelling for the AAVE eye-dialect rendering of "I'm going to."

    [(myl) interesting. The thing about "gwine" is that it's used for all varieties of the present participle of go, not just the immediate-present usage in "going to" — the OED's citations are:

    1831   R. Lower Tom Cladpole's Jurney xlii. 14   He said he must be gwyn.
    1881   H. Smith & C. R. Smith Isle of Wight Words 50,   I be gwine zoo vast as I can.
    1882   ‘M. Twain’ Lett. to Publishers 4 Mar. (1967) 152   I's gwyne to sen' you de stuff.
    1896   Longman's Mag. Dec. 155   As I wur gwine up street, zo I looked in.
    1908   Sears, Roebuck Catal. No. 117. 200/1   Vocal Quartettes… I'se Gwine Back to Dixie (coon song).
    1932   Amer. Speech 7 178   By de time a'-wee was gwine tek de 'tart again, me foot get soak.
    1950   Publ. Amer. Dial. Soc. xiv. 34   Whar you gwine?
    1969   ‘J. Morris’ Fever Grass ii. 19   One day police gwine hol' you.


  10. HP said,

    August 10, 2012 @ 10:45 am

    @myl: I suppose it's possible that something like the pronunciation "gwine" was typical of the Congolese River Patois that would likely have been used by enslaved Africans in the early 19th c., and that the spelling became ossified over time, more of a racial signifier than an attempt to render speech phonetically. But Congolese River Patois is way outside my knowledge base to offer an informed opinion.

    (Adding, editorially, that 1969 reference strikes me as especially galling. What would James Baldwin say?)

    Does anyone know how this construction is rendered in, e.g., Jamaican Creole?

  11. Coby Lubliner said,

    August 10, 2012 @ 10:53 am

    HP: What would "Congolese River Patois" have to do with the 1831 and 1881 citations, which are from England? (Tom Cladpole's Jurney is said to be "pure Sussex.")

    What I found most interesting in myl's post is the rhyming of oil with Arkansas.

    [(myl) Robert Johnson pronounces "oil" as [ɔl] (= "all"), and "Arkansas" ending in [ɔ]. The first of those is a widespread consequence of glide shortening, and the second is pretty much universal among those who don't have the cot-caught merger. The assonance is improved by the tendency towards vocalization of the [l]. So it's not a perfect rhyme, but it's close…]

  12. HP said,

    August 10, 2012 @ 11:23 am

    @ Coby: I'm always happy to be wrong. I didn't follow up on the references for the 1831 and 1881 references (laziness on my part), and assumed they referred to African diaspora speech. I've only run into "gwine" in the context of AAVE eye-dialect, but that's a reflection of my interests.

    What does Sussex dialect have to do with AAVE? Feel free to speculate. Perhaps aliens are involved. Or maybe Robert Newton. Yarrh.

  13. DCBob said,

    August 10, 2012 @ 12:34 pm

    In my experience a common version of that sound should be written approximately as [ɔ˜ʊ˜] – that is, with both vowels nasalized. (I don't know how to put the tildes over the vowels.] There's not really any good orthographic representation using common English writing conventions.

    Robert Johnson's phonetics deserve a complete treatise.

  14. Mona Williams said,

    August 10, 2012 @ 2:39 pm

    My mother used to say "gonoo" when the next word began with a vowel ("I'm gonoo empty the trash"), and it made sense to me. Changing the schwa sound at the end of "gonna" to the "oo" in "to" seemed to make the consecutive vowels easier to say.

  15. Chris Waters said,

    August 10, 2012 @ 4:40 pm

    "On" (or "awn") seems distinctly southern to me. Around here (US west coast), it seems to be pronounced more like "ung". As in "I mung hafta". I assume this is related to so-called g-dropping.

  16. Tony said,

    August 11, 2012 @ 9:52 pm

    We cannot forget:


  17. maidhc said,

    August 17, 2012 @ 12:33 am

    I was reminded of this thread because I was driving around today and old blues was playing on the radio. Several of the singers very definitely said "gwine". Because I was in the car I didn't get the singers' names, except that one of them was Memphis Minnie.

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