I’ma share some Walter Mosley and William Labov

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”.

White Butterfly elaborates on this idea. Easy is telling us about Stella Keaton, a librarian at a small public library:

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.


17 Responses to I’ma share some Walter Mosley and William Labov

  1. Hope says:

    I was starting a program at a university in Boston several years ago and went for a checkup at the school health center. After answering most of her questions in the affirmative, the doctor finally said–with distinct annoyance–“You’re *from* here, aren’t you?” Me: “Yeah, how did you know?” Her: “Because people from Boston never use the word ‘yes’.” (Cue the blushing and the mild class paranoia.)

  2. Shaun Downey says:

    I’d not seen I’ma in that context before – or hadn’t taken any notice of it. I’ma gonna Love you too but never I’ma love you too!

  3. Stan says:

    Hope: It’s strange how people get so worked up over everyday expressions. I knew someone who would become enraged when he heard an Irish person say “Hi”, because he considered it an Americanism to be avoided by non-Americans. Like yeah, it’s informal, but not inherently objectionable.

    Shaun: Neal Whitman thinks it developed like this: I’m gonna > I’mana > I’mna > I’ma. I’ma go with that progression for now!

  4. Marc Leavitt says:

    To Labov’s point:
    When I was in college, by big words besotted, periphrasis peppered my prose. Predisposed to impress, I never noticed the obfuscation produced.
    Becoming a reporter, I had an epiphany, re-reading Polonius’s speech.
    Brevity is indeed the soul of wit.

  5. Stan,

    I’ma have to confess, Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins, largely inner-city-rooted, detective series of character-driven novels are up there w/ my all-time favorites of the crime/ thriller genre. (Even though
    I tend to gravitate more towards non-fiction, these days.)

    I so appreciate the way that Mosley always deftly manages to set the particulars of any given unfolding scenario, enabling the reader to be transported ‘right to the scene’, where we can readily visualize the immediate setting where the key characters are physically situated, while at the same time almost palpably feeling and even smelling the atmospheric, gritty urban ‘funk’ of that specific slice of the inner-city landscape.

    Having lived in L.A. for over three decades, to a minor degree, I’ve experienced, first-hand, some of the more hardscrabble, disadvantaged, marginalized areas of this vast, sprawling metropolis in which Mosley has chosen to situate his cast of engaging fictional characters—- the so-called mean streets of mid-20th century Los Angeles.

    (Admittedly, there are many angels, or forces of good, in this city of over three million souls…. and counting. Yet I’m afeared that the devils likely outweigh those positive harbingers of good. Sadly, we need more folk cut from the the Easy Rawlins cloth operating in this town. But I digress.)

    For me, Walter Mosley’s observational skills are truly remarkable. In his prose, he manages to capture the enduring, underlying social tensions, eminent danger, and sheer desperation—the feel—for what it’s like to habituate the wrong side-of-the-tracks, and operate at the fringes of a white-dominated society.

    Easy Rawlins is all too familiar w/ this netherworld of hustlers, pimps, hookers, junkies, petty criminals, and the majority of good, decent folk who are just trying to stay on the right side of the law, day in and day out. Easy grew up in this fringe world, and because he’s so intimately familiar w/ its goings-on, he can more readily navigate its challenges as he tries to enforce his almost vigilante form of justice, and morality.

    Stan, I think this discussion re/ the colloquial “I’ma” speaks to Mosley’s brilliant ability to nail the authentic vernacular of the streets where he was raised, so that the reader really believes his characters are actual flesh-and-blood people, not just one-dimensional caricatures; yet w/ an elegant economy of words that avoids any over-talky, belabored, or far-fetched narrative line. IMHO, not a single word that Mosley puts on the page in his fictional works is superfluous.

    For a profound, thought-provoking, and intelligent non-fiction Mosley read, I highly recommend his year-2000-published book, “Workin’ on the Chain Gang/ Shaking Off the Dead Hand of History”. You shall not be disappointed, and just maybe, overcome.

  6. John Cowan says:

    As a 54-year-old white American from just outside the NYC dialect boundary but living inside it for 30 years, Imana /aɪmənə/ is what I naturally say in allegro speech. I’m gonna would be very lento, I am going to either parodistic or very, very hostile.

  7. mollymooly says:

    People can usually be trusted to know *whether* they dislike a particular usage, but seldom to know *why* they dislike it.

  8. Stan says:

    Marc: I imagine many budding writers, maybe even most, go through a phase of being unduly impressed by long words and fancy phrasing. A few unlucky ones get stuck in it.

    Alex: “not a single word that Mosley puts on the page in his fictional works is superfluous.” The same thought occurred to me. I’ve read just two of his books to date, but I was very impressed by both and hope to read more, fiction and non-fiction alike. Thanks for sharing your sincere and lucid impressions of Mosley’s work.

    John: I don’t usually drop the [g] from the phrase. I’m gonna comes most naturally to me in casual speech, and doesn’t feel very slow. I would also say I’m going to sometimes, but I am going to rarely if ever.

    Molly: That’s true, and unfortunate: an answer to the latter question is normally much more interesting. There seems to be a general tendency to indulge in the feeling inspired by a usage, especially if it’s negative, rather than to examine its cause.

  9. Charles Sullivan says:

    Muhammed Ali said: “I’ma show you how great I am.”

  10. Charles Sullivan says:

    It’s the best I can find (just before the fight against George Foreman in Zaire–Congo).

  11. Stan says:

    Great example, Charles. Thanks.

  12. alexmccrae1546 says:

    @Charles. That classic Ali/ Foreman bout must have been the super-hyped “Rumble in the Jungle”?

    Can’t recall if the “Thrilla in Manila” was before, or after this momentous skirmish in central Africa?

    Interestingly, as I recall, Ali was greeted, and treated by the people of Africa, almost universally, as a kind of demigod/ super-human figure— an immediate, bigger-than-life, pop-culture sensation.

    And Ali was just as taken by the warm, enthusiastically welcoming African crowds greeting him at every quarter. The raw, exotic beauty of the land of his roots also moved Ali, immensely.

    What a sad irony that today, Mohammed Ali is but a shell of his former physical greatness, although apparently his mind and wit are almost as sharp as ever.

    It was heartening to see him, and his wife, front-and-center, at the Friday night London Olympic flag unfurling/ parading telecast, during the Games’ spectacular opening ceremonies.

    And of course, George Foreman, w/ his seven (?) sons all named George, very much, still has all his wits about him. He has shrewedly parlayed his global fame from his memorable exploits in the squared-circle, into a multi-million-dollar cooking appliance empire, w/ his best selling George Foreman Grill having become literally a household name in kitchen ware.

    He even manged to get his credentials as an ordained man-of-the cloth, namely the Right Reverand Foreman….thank you very much… and had a modest, loyal congregation, on-and-off, for a time.

    He took on his own ministry during a rather down period in his life, after he had left boxing, and was essentially broke, w/ a fast-growing family to support; basically struggling w/ what would be his next viable career move.

    As he would say, “The Lord has truly blessed me….. now buy one of my grills.”

    Talk about someone totally reinventing themselves. A long way from that famous “Rumble in the Jungle”…. for sure.

  13. Ado_Annie says:

    @John Cowan – I would have taken Imana for a southern term, an easy glide over ‘I’m going to.’ As in, Imana fix meatloaf for supper, you want rice or mashed potatoes? Sort of a twin sister of ‘fixinta,’ as in, I’m fixinta go to the store, you need anything while I’m there? Alright, more Texan than southern, but close.

  14. Shaun Downey says:

    Now you mention it just seen this tweet from one British gymnast regarding another”

    Ima say it now kristian is Gunna get a medal boooom

    Ima look for this in future!

  15. Stan says:

    Shaun: A nice coincidence – thanks for reporting back!

  16. Shaun Downey says:

    Sadly Kristian didn’t get a medal though!

  17. […] is acceptable in Standard English; gonna/gon’ and I’mna/I’ma/Imma are not, though you may see them in dialogue or informal writing or use some of them yourself in […]

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