I’ma share some Walter Mosley and William Labov

July 27, 2012

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:

Read the rest of this entry »

You might could dig these multiple modals

February 6, 2012

A passage from Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress:

Joppy stopped wiping [the bar] for a moment and looked me in the eye.
“Don’t get me wrong, Ease. DeWitt is a tough man, and he runs in bad company. But you still might could get that mortgage payment an’ you might even learn sumpin’ from’im.”

That ‘might could get’ was a serendipitous phrase to encounter. Over the preceding days I’d come across several treatments of what are known as double modals or multiple modals, and had been considering a blog post about them. Hint taken.

Brad Dourif acting as Dr Amos Cochran in Deadwood. He says: "If her wounds don't fester, she might can have a fighting chance." He is wearing oval glasses low on his nose, and a black waistcoat over a white shirt. His hair is shoulder-length and greasy. He's talking to someone facing away from us wearing a hat with several feathers in it.

First, a technical note on modals. These are a small and grammatically unusual family of verbs. They’re a subset of the auxiliary (helper) verbs and so are sometimes called modal auxiliaries. They qualify other verbs in a verb phrase, influencing the overall meaning: I can go, you may be, she must try. Geoffrey Pullum says there are 8–12 of them in English:

Read the rest of this entry »