July 03, 2005


Ella at Cherrier takes a look at the contraction I'ma in hiphop lyrics. She observes, for example, that in Big Tymers' Get High, the -a form seems to be in call-and-response complementarity with gon':

Well I’ma smoke (I’m gon’ smoke)
Until I choke (until I choke)

There's a review of previous research on forms of going to in Shana Poplack and Sali Tagliamonte, "The grammaticization of going to in (African American) English", Language Variation and Change, 11 (2000), 315-342. The only reference there to I'ma is this:

AAVE, like other varieties of English, is reported to express future variably with will, going to, and the present (Labov, Cohen, Robins, & Lewis, 1968:250). Though AAVE is generally considered (Labov et al., 1968:250;Winford, 1998:113) to prefer forms of going to, Labov et al. (1968:250) noted that will is “quite secure” in contemporary AAVE, despite the fact that frequent word-final consonant deletion may render future forms with contracted will indistinguishable from present tense forms (Labov, 1972:24–25).

In fact, the few published observations on the expression of future in AAVE focus not on the opposition between will and going to, but on putative distinctions among the variant forms of going to (e.g., gonna, gon), the phonological reduction of which 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. Winford (1998:113) suggested a distinction between AAVE gon and gonna parallel to the creole distinction between “pure future” go/gon and “prospective” future goin/gwine (cf. Winford, 1998:133n.14), basing this analogy on Rickford and Blake’s (1990:261) finding of more copula absence before gon than gonna.

One of the reasons for interest in this topic has been the question of the relationships among different Atlantic English-based creoles and AAVE ("African American Vernacular English") -- see John McWhorter, "Sisters under the skin: A case for genetic relationship between the Atlantic English-based creoles", Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages 10.2:289-333, 1995. As Poplack and Taglimonte go on to write:

More generally, the high rate of zero copula in this context has been invoked as evidence that gon(na) originated from a creole preverbal irrealis marker go (e.g., Holm, 1984; Rickford, 1998:183) or reflects the adoption of a lone preverbal form as a result of substrate influence (Mufwene, 1996:10). In contrast to the tense distinctions that characterize English, English-based creoles are said to make a basic modal distinction between realis and irrealis. Realis refers to situations that have already occurred or are in the process of occurring, while irrealis refers to unrealized states and events, including, but not limited to, predictions about the future. Indeed, future time reference is but one possible interpretation for irrealis markers (Comrie, 1985:45); they are also used to mark conditional mood (Bickerton, 1975, 1981) as well as to convey possibility and obligation (Bickerton, 1975, 1981; Holm, 1988; Winford, 1996, among others).

Interestingly, although irrealis markers differ across English-based creoles, most, if not all, derive from an English future marker: thus, sa (< shall; or possibly < Dutch zal) in Sranan (Seuren, 1981;Winford, 1996) and Ndjuká (Holm, 1988), and we/wi (< will) in Jamaican Creole English (Bailey, 1966; Gibson, 1992), Carriacouan Creole English (Gibson, 1992), 18th- and 19th-century Nigerian Pidgin English (Fayer, 1990), and Kru Pidgin English (Singler, 1990).The most widely used marker go(n)/guo/o (< going to) has reflexes in just about every attested English-based creole (Aceto, 1998; Bailey, 1966; Bickerton, 1975; Fayer, 1990; Gibson, 1992; Holm, 1988; Seuren, 1981;Winford, 1996; see also Faraclas, 1989; Hancock, 1987). Its frequency may explain the creole origin many impute to variants of going to, particularly gon(na), in contemporary AAVE and in Gullah (Mufwene, 1996:8). If AAVE gon(na) in fact derives from this creole marker, it should show at least some parallels with it as well as some differences from English. But a closer inspection of the literature on future marking in English-based creoles reveals, as in AAVE and English, a good deal of variability. For example, both Gibson (1992:64) and Bailey (1966:46) cited wi as the future marker in Jamaican Creole English but noted that the future may be expressed by “the go periphrasis” (Bailey, 1966) as well as by the progressive marker a (Holm, 1988:164). Similarly, Gibson (1992) noted variation in Carriacouan Creole English between the “more conservative” wi and guo, as did Singler (1990:207) in Kru Pidgin English. Sranan expresses future, in some cases apparently interchangeably, with both o and sa (Seuren, 1981;Winford, 1996, to appear-a). Hancock’s (1987:290–291, 301) overview of future marking in 33 anglophone Atlantic creoles likewise reveals much variability, both across and within varieties. Here, then, is yet another case where not only the variants, but also co-variation among them, are attested in both English and English-based creoles. Only a comparative quantitative analysis of their distribution and conditioning would enable us to determine which underlying system gave rise to the surface forms in AAVE.

To our knowledge, no such analysis exists for any English-based creole, since creolists who have recognized this variability also tend to attribute to each of the variant forms a corresponding semantic function, invoking many of the same nuances that we have reviewed in connection with the English future auxiliaries, often with the same contradictory results. Thus, Winford (1996, to appear-b) ascribed to Sranan sa nuances of possibility and uncertainty as well as of posterior time, while Seuren (1981:1054) argued that it conveys “neutral predictions” and “future events or situations resulting from somebody’s insistence, order, wish, or promise,” while o “indicates a future event or situation resulting from some pre-established plan or from natural causes already at the time of speaking.”

According to Peter Patrick ("Jamaican Creole morphology and syntax", in Bernd Kormann et al., eds., A Handbook of Varieties of English, v. 2, Mouton de Gruyter 2004), Jamaican has a progressive -a that can be optionally combined with preceding tense markers:

Progressive aspect is uniformly signalled by preverbal a (6-7), while habitual aspect is often unmarked, though at an earlier stage both were marked alike in a single imperfective category with (d)a (da and de persist in western Jamaica, Bailey 1966: 138). It is still possible to mark habitual with a+Verb, just like the progressive. Aspectual a is tense-neutral in JamC, and may be preceded by tense-markers (ben+a, did+a, ben+de, was+a etc.).

  (6)     -stative  
a, de
  Mi a ron  
  (7)     -stative   ben/did + a/de      past progressive     Mi ben a ron   

(6) ‘I’m running’ / ‘I was running’ / ‘I (used to) habitually run’
(7) ‘I was running’ / ‘I used to habitually run’

Completive aspect is signalled by don, which unlike other TMA markers may occur not only preverbally but after the verb phrase (8-9), or even both.

(8) Him lucky we never nyam him too, for we did done cook already. (Sistren 1987: 30)
      ‘It’s lucky we didn’t eat it too, for we had already cooked.’ [of a chicken]
(9) Dem deh-deh, till she cook and we nyam done. (Sistren 1987: 82)
      ‘They stayed there until she had cooked and we had finished eating.’

I guess that an influence from -a as a progressive marker might be responsible for the feeling that I'ma "denotes immediate future, in contrast to I'm gonna, which would be more remote".

I've quoted from a couple of recent scholarly sources just to indicate that linguists do study things like this, and that the methods and results of linguistic analysis shed some light on the problems. In this case, it looks like the verdict is uncertain, though at least it's well-informed uncertainty, with plenty of footnotes... But I don't know much about it. John McWhorter and Geoff Pullum, who have both published on related topics, can probably provide a clearer conclusion.

Anyhow, the volume of transcribed hiphop lyrics is now large enough to provide an interesting new source of linguistic examples. One problem is that the transcriptions are not always accurate and (even when accurate) not always clear. For example, I imagine that what is transcribed as "shole" in the second couplet of Big Tymers' refrain

And I'ma drank (I'ma shole drank)
Until I can't (until I can't)

is either just a funny spelling of sho', or else (?) a representation of sho' plus contracted 'll. (And the existence of a pattern
/I -m -a ADVERB -ll VERB /
might be the most interesting linguistic fact about the song...).

Of course, Ella no doubt went back to the source recordings to validate (the relevant parts of) her citations, which I haven't tried to do here.

[Update: some more lyrical evidence about auxiliaries, quoted in the NYT obituary for Luther Vandross:

But the best of all the recent Luther Vandross songs wasn't really a Luther Vandross song at all. It was "Slow Jamz," a collaboration between Kanye West, Twista and Jamie Foxx. The song was built around a snippet of one of Mr. Vandross's ad-libs from the end of "A House Is Not a Home." It's a quick little vocal run - "Are you gonna be/ Say you're gonna be/ Are you gonna be/ Say you're gonna be/ Are you gonna be/ Say you're gonna be/ Well, well; well, well" - but Mr. West made it faster to emphasize the syncopation, slyly speeding up a slow-jam specialist.

The lyrics pay tribute to the history of make-out music, with Mr. Vandross as Exhibit A. For listeners who still don't know how a Luther-enhanced seduction is supposed to work, Mr. West sums it up: "I'm-a play this Vandross/ You gon' take your pants off." This was, in its own shameless way, yet another classic Luther Vandross moment, and by no means the last. The man himself was missing, but his warm, achy voice seemed closer than ever.


Posted by Mark Liberman at July 3, 2005 07:06 AM