The contraction I’ma (also Imma, etc., = I’m gonna) hit the spotlight in 2009 when Kanye West used it while interrupting Taylor Swift at the MTV Video Music Awards (“I’ma let you finish, but Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time”). Parodies spread and a meme went viral.
But the phrase has been around for decades. Neal 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 Language Log if you’re interested.
I’ma in print lags behind its occurrence in speech, but I came across it recently in Walter Mosley’s novel White Butterfly (1992). The third outing of reluctant detective Easy Rawlins, White Butterfly includes several instances of I’ma used in AAVE speech. A few examples:
He gave a big grin and said, “Know what I’ma do, Easy?”
“First thing I get that money I’ma buy me a ’57 T-Bird.”
“We’re here to find out who’s killing these girls,” Violette said. He spoke with his upper lip tight against his teeth. “We don’t want this crazy man running our streets.”
“That’s some shit,” I said. “Excuse me, but I’ma have to go get me a beer if I gotta listen to this.”
Mosley featured on this blog before: in a post about double or multiple modals, I quoted the narrator of Devil in a Blue Dress (Easy Rawlins again) saying he “tried to speak proper English”, but found he could only truly express himself “in the natural, ‘uneducated’ dialect of my upbringing”.
She treated the people who came in there like her siblings and she treated the children like her own. If you were a regular at the library she’d bake you a cake on your birthday and save the books you loved under the front desk.
We were on a first-name basis, Stella and I, but I was unhappy that she held that job. I was unhappy because even though Stella was nice, she was still a white woman. A white woman from a place where there were only white Christians. To her Shakespeare was a god. I didn’t mind that, but what did she know about the folk tales and riddles and stories colored folks had been telling for centuries. What did she know about the language we spoke?
I always heard her correcting children’s speech. “Not ‘I is,’” she’d say. “It’s ‘I am.’”
And, of course, she was right. It’s just that little colored children listening to that proper white woman would never hear their own cadence in her words. They’d come to believe that they would have to abandon their own language and stories to become part of her educated world. They would have to forfeit Waller for Mozart and Remus for Puck. They would enter a world where only white people spoke. And no matter how articulate Dickens and Voltaire were, those children wouldn’t have their own examples in the house of learning – the library.
I had argued with Stella about these things before. She was sensitive about them but when you told her that some man standing on a street corner telling bawdy tales was something like Chaucer she’d crinkle her nose and shake her head. She was always respectful, though.
This situation has parallels in many speech communities. In Ireland, for example, schoolchildren were once commonly punished for using Hiberno-English idioms instead of standard English. The scene in White Butterfly ends with Easy (short for Ezekiel) on his way out after browsing the library’s newspaper archives:
“Did you find what you were looking for, Ezekiel?”
“Naw.” I shook my head. “I mean, yeah . . .” She frowned when I said that. I knew she wanted to correct me with “Yes.”
On that note, I’d like to recommend William Labov’s 1972 essay “Academic Ignorance and Black Intelligence”. I learned about it on Twitter via Matt Gordon, who has a new book out called Labov: A Guide for the Perplexed (which I hope to read one day). Here’s an excerpt from Labov’s essay; it relates to the Mosley passage above:
Before we impose middle-class verbal style upon children from other cultural groups, we should find out how much of it is useful for the main work of analyzing and generalizing, and how much is merely stylistic – or even dysfunctional. In high school and college, middle-class children spontaneously complicate their syntax to the point that instructors despair of getting them to make their language simpler and clearer.
Our work in the speech community makes it painfully obvious that in many ways working-class speakers are more effective narrators, reasoners, and debaters than many middle-class speakers, who temporize, qualify, and lose their argument in a mass of irrelevant detail.
As an editor I see writers sometimes tying themselves up in rhetorical knots trying to make a straightforward point sound more impressive. Plain, natural expression makes them somehow suspicious, so they bend their thoughts into awkward, highfalutin language under the misconception that it’s expected or preferable.
As for English education: children can be taught the value and utility of the prestige dialect – standard English – without being made to feel that their natural expression is wrong, inferior or shameful. They can be encouraged to enjoy and analyse their native speech while also being shown why it’s inappropriate in certain contexts. I imagine that’s closer to the norm these days.
I’ma stop harping on about this now.