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Language moves

By Winford James

One of the structures that fascinates me in American English, especially that English as spoken by the younger (-at-heart) crowd, is “I’ma”, sometimes written “I’mma” and pronounced “Amma”. It occurs in statements such as “I’ma sing you a song” and “I’ma hand over the cash when I see the goods”. In Standard English, the equivalent is something like “I’m going to...” and it is now part of the international English usage of the younger (-at-heart) crowd.
Where did it come from? How did it arise? Is it legitimate structure?
When I analyse it, I find it comprises: 1. the first person singular subject pronoun “I”; 2. the contracted version of “am”—the present-tense form of the verb “to be” that goes with “I”; and 3. the particle “a”. Three clear forms. The first two combine to produce “I’m”, which has been around a long, long time and so should be well known, but where does the remaining one come from?
At this point, I must confess I do not know. It is a long shot—isn’t it?—that it could have come from the “a” in structures like the following originating in Middle English: “Winter is a-coming in”, “they went a-frolicking” and “Poor Tom is a-cold”, in which “a” seems to be marking or highlighting the progressive and stative nature of the verb (“coming”) and adjective (“cold”).
Could it perhaps have been adopted from the songs of Jamaican and international entertainers like Beenie Man and Busta Rhymes? But these are mere Jamaican singers and celebrities, and I am having trouble wrapping my head around the idea that they can influence that kind of linguistic move in American English.

Now, it is true that Jamaicans and Eastern Caribbean people (including Tobagonians) use the particle “a” in sentences such as “Mi a sing a song” and “Mi a hand over the cash”, in which the particle has progressive meaning, but, come on now, West Indians influencing the adoption of the “a” in American “I’ma”?!
But what about it coming from Standard English “going to”? How transparent is that? What about the sound of “going to” suggests “a”?
The conundrum causes me to pause my writing and ask my son what he thinks. And he offers an etymology I didn’t think of: the “a” being an abbreviated form of “gonna”! Brilliant! First, “going to” shortens to “gonna”, then “gonna” shortens to “a”. The language disposes of the “gonn” and keeps the “a” with the same meaning, he says. Yes, brilliant! Tobagonian Child must take after his mother!
I am adopting that insight but it does not completely solve the problem for me. I am going to leave aside for the moment the issue of how the language made the move from “going to” to “gonna” and deal with how it could abbreviate “gonna” to “a”, and why there is nothing comparable to “I’ma” in the verbal paradigm.
“Gonna” is a form with future meaning, and future meaning subcategorises progressive and prospective meanings. The statement “I gonna visit Barbados tomorrow” expresses a future event (as “tomorrow” suggests) and can be rendered alternatively as “I going Barbados tomorrow”, in which the verb “going” is clearly progressive (through the “-ing”) and also clearly prospective (through “tomorrow”).
“Gonna” is therefore a particle that expresses the futurity of the event of visiting. As such, its form can vary so long as some piece of phonological matter remains to carry its meaning. My son did not make the observation, but it is pretty clear that “gonna” can be analysed as being one morpheme (or a word or a part thereof with meaning), although in its derivation from “going to”, it started off with two morphemes—“gonn” and “a”.
What did “gonn” originally mean? It seems it meant something like “future”. And what did “a” mean? It seems it meant something like “marker of infinitive verb”, with “gonn” meaning something like “future” or “progressive”, and “a” something like “marker of infinitive verb”, just like “to”.
But in the phonological combination of the two of them, their meanings conflated, with the result that “gonna” now had a single meaning—that of “future/prospective”. Since it now had one meaning, and that meaning was grammatical—“future/prospective” is not a content meaning, it could be reduced as a word. The reduction could have gone either way—to “gonn” or to “a”. In the case of “I’ma”, it went to “a”.

If it had gone to “gonn”, we would have had “I’m gonn”, which is a bit less economical than “I’ma”, and, some would claim, less elegant. It has gone to “I’m”, which raises another issue: why “a” combines only with “I’m” in the verbal paradigm. It does not combine with “you’re”, “he’s”, “she’s”, “it’s”, “we’re” or “they’re”. Why not?
It cannot be a matter of tense; “I’m” and its fellows are all present tense. Is there something special about the consonant “m” since it is unique in the paradigm? Why should the uniqueness of “m” create a special structure?
No, I think it has to do with the frequency of self-reference. The subject pronoun “I” easily outdoes its fellow pronouns in terms of frequency of usage. In language change and development, eco­nomy (via form and structure reduction) and frequency are serious forces. They make “I’ma” a legitimate structure.
Perhaps in due course, we will see the creation of “he’s a sing...”, “you’re a sing...”, “they’re a sing...”, and so on?

• Winford James is a UWI lecturer
and political analyst.
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