Pay attention to the lyrics of the songs at the top of the pop charts these days, and you'll hear one slangy word used with surprising frequency: Imma (spelled in various different ways). Our resident linguist Neal Whitman investigates.

 

For two weeks last month, the #1 spot on the Billboard charts was held by the Black Eyed Peas' "Imma Be," which starts like this:

Imma be, Imma be, Imma, Imma, Imma be
Imma be, Imma be, Imma, Imma, Imma be
Imma be, Imma be, Imma, Imma, Imma be

Imma be, be, be, be, Imma, Imma be
Imma be, be, be, be, Imma, Imma be
Imma be, be, be, be, Imma, Imma be

Imma be on the next level
Imma be rockin' over that bass treble
Imma be chillin' with my mutha mutha crew
Imma be makin' all them deals you wanna do

This word Imma continues to appear in almost every line for the rest of the song. For those unfamiliar with Imma, the song sounds at first like something the Sesame Street Muppets should be singing in a phonics segment (like this one). That impression quickly disappears when you read the lyrics, which I won't quote here.

In fact, this Imma (also spelled I'ma, I'mma, Ima, and I'm a) is not the contraction I'm followed by a, but a contraction of I'm gonna — which, of course, is a contraction of I'm going to, which is itself a contraction of I am going to. The progression from I'm gonna to Imma involves two common phonetic processes. The first one is the simplification of the consonant cluster mg to just m, resulting in a form that you might spell Imana. If you listen carefully, you can hear people say Imana all the time, although if called upon to write down what they said, you'd probably just write it as "I'm gonna" (or "I'm going to," depending on your acceptance of gonna). From Imana, it's a short step to Imna, as the unstressed middle vowel drops out. This process is called syncope, and also happens in words like choc'late, veg'table, and int'resting. I caught myself saying Imna just the other morning, when I told my son, "Imna get some more napkins." In the final step, cluster simplification occurs once again, reducing Imna to Imma.

Meanwhile, back on the Billboard Hot 100, until last week the #1 song was Rihanna's "Rude Boy," which held the spot for more than a month. A sampling of the lyrics:

Tonight Imma let you be the captain
Tonight Imma let you do your thing, yeah
Tonight Imma let you be a rider
Giddy up, giddy up, giddy up, babe

Tonight Imma let it be fire
Tonight Imma let you take me higher
Tonight baby we can get it on, yeah
We can get it on, yeah

Many more Immas follow. That makes two top songs that use Imma, not just in a line or two, but repeatedly, even insistently, as if the songwriters were trying to set a record for how many times they could fit it into a single song.

Furthermore, the song that bumped "Rude Boy" from the top spot also contains Imma, though not at the levels seen in "Rude Boy" and "Imma Be." It's B.o.B.'s "Nothin' On You," with the line "Imma let this ride." Three other songs in this week's Top 10 contain Imma as well. One is "Rude Boy" (which dropped only one notch); another is Taio Cruz's "Break Your Heart" (which hit #1 for a week in between "Imma Be" and "Rude Boy"), with the line "I'ma tear you apart." Lastly there is Usher's "OMG," entering the Top 10 this week at #8, containing the line "Imma let the beat drop."

More striking still is the fact that every song that has hit #1 on the Billboard charts this year has contained Imma. Before the "Imma Be"/"Break Your Heart"/"Rude Boy"/ "Nothin' on You" run, Kesha's "Tik Tok" occupied the top spot for all of January and February. Its chorus features the lyric, "Tonight, Imma fight / Till we see the sunlight."

Strangely, not one of the twelve songs that hit #1 in 2009 contained Imma — not even two songs by the Black Eyed Peas, who went so Imma-crazy in their next hit. However, some further digging shows that this year's Hot 100, although more receptive to Imma than other years', is not too unusual ... yet. Although no Imma songs hit #1 in 2009, for each of the years from 2006 through 2008, four Imma songs made it to the top. So 2009 is an outlier, and 2010 is only one Imma song above the mode. Nevertheless, 2010 is unusual for its five-in-a-row (so far) streak of Imma songs, and the high concentration of Immas in two of them.

A fun story would be that this blossoming of Imma at the top of the Billboard charts owes something to Kanye West. It was in September that he interrupted Taylor Swift's acceptance speech at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards with his now-famous outburst, "Yo, Taylor, I'm really happy for you, and Imma let you finish, but Beyonce [Knowles] had one of the best videos of all time!" Then came the "Imma let you finish" Kanye meme that raged across the Internet, which involved inserting an image of Kanye West into various pictures, with a caption following (more or less) the template "Yo X, I'm really happy for you and Imma let you finish, but Y had one of the best Z's of all time!"

Only a few months later, "Imma Be" hit the top of the charts. So, the story would go, the Kanye/VMA affair and its aftermath raised the profile of Imma, boosting the popularity of Imma-heavy songs like "Imma Be" (which came out the week before the VMA ceremony) and "Rude Boy" (which came out two months after it). Hey, it wouldn't be the only linguistic aftereffect of the Kanye incident: Kanye himself became a verb.

 Interesting though such a story might be, the real explanation is probably more boring. Here's what I think happened: Imma existed in the spoken language for years before making it into written form. The Oxford English Dictionary doesn't have a listing for it yet, but the sociolinguist William Labov made note of I'ma in a 1967 study of African American English. The usage hasn't been restricted to one particular dialect, though; my son heard it in a 1960s-era "Tom and Jerry" cartoon a few days ago, when an Old West sheriff said, "Imma get the fastest gun in the west!"

When Imma did start appearing in print, it appeared in the lyrics of rap songs. The earliest such example I have (thanks to my brother Glen) is "F--- tha Police" by N.W.A., from 1988: "I'ma kick your ass." There's also House of Pain's "I'm a Swing It" from 1994, with the line "Ya dis me and I'm a dis ya back / I'm a swing it." Imma continued to be used in more and more songs, though not in hit singles. Even so, as Imma continued to appear in songs, it was just a matter of time before some of those songs started appearing at the top of the charts, which they eventually did in the early 2000s. The use of Imma and its variants in space-constrained contexts like text messages and tweets may have contributed as well, but it's hard to say to what extent. And as for the extreme Imma-cy of "Imma Be" and "Rude Boy"? Well, that's just one of those things.

One question that remains is why Imma in songs is confined to rap and hip-hop. Why doesn't it show up in country or rock songs? Imma in conversation goes unnoticed by all kinds of speakers, heard as "I'm gonna" or "I'm going to," but Imma in songs is heard as "Imma," as much a word as wanna or gotta or gimme, and used in that way, it seems to have become a sociolinguistic marker for hip-hop culture. The same goes for tryna "tryin' to" and finna "fixin' to," as noted by Mark Liberman in a 2005 Language Log post that followed up on his own examination of Imma (which he spelled as I'ma).

If Imma ever does make it to fully legitimate status in the standard dialect, settling into a standardized spelling, kids in school can welcome one more set of homophones to memorize: Imma and I'm a, to join it's/its, you're/your, and they're/their/there. If my grandchildren ever complain about having Imma and I'm a on their spelling test, Imma laugh!

More on Imma can be found in this post on Neal Whitman's blog, Literal-Minded, where he writes about linguistics in everyday life from the point of view of a husband and father.


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Neal Whitman blogs at Literal-Minded, where he writes about linguistics in everyday life from the point of view of a husband and father. He taught English as a second language while earning his degree at Ohio State University; has published articles in Language, Journal of Linguistics, and other publications; and writes occasional scripts for the podcast "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." Click here to read more articles by Neal Whitman.

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Comments from our users:

Monday April 26th 2010, 9:21 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Well, this article (and the songs mentioned) makes 'Mairzey dotes' sound so sensible!

I'll probably aggrevate everyone under 60, but where have the lyrics gone? Only in show tunes? How long will we have those?

Oh, how I love my oldies station!

But then, our generation did sing to "Goodnight, Irene", too!
Monday April 26th 2010, 6:45 PM
Comment by: Carl B. (Winter Park, CO)
The fact that the "Imma" spelling is catching on annoys me. It looks like it should be pronounced with a short i, as though it rhymed with the British pronunciation of "dimmer."

"I'm-a" makes more sense to me.
Tuesday April 27th 2010, 1:27 AM
Comment by: Patricia H. (Philadelphia, PA)
I like Mark Liebman's spelling (I'ma) better. I agree with Carl B. "Imma" needs to be pronounced with a short "i."
Tuesday April 27th 2010, 12:14 PM
Comment by: Neal WhitmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
I agree with Carl B. and Patricia H. about the spelling of "Imma". I don't know why that one has caught on, although the Black Eyed Peas' choice has probably contributed to its popularity. Lyrics from previous years usually spell it "I'ma" or even "I'm a" (as in the House of Pain song). I also take exception to the Peas' spelling in their hit from last year, "I Gotta Feeling". No, no, no! "Gotta" = "(have) got to". It should have been "I Got a Feeling". Maybe the rule they're following is that if it's a slangy contraction, it should have a doubled consonant if at all possible, as with "gonna", "wanna", "whattaya/whaddya", and "finna" (but not "tryna").
Tuesday April 27th 2010, 12:41 PM
Comment by: Neal WhitmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
I agree with Carl B. and Patricia H. about the spelling of "Imma". I don't know why that one has caught on, although the Black Eyed Peas' choice has probably contributed to its popularity. Lyrics from previous years usually spell it "I'ma" or even "I'm a" (as in the House of Pain song). I also take exception to the Peas' spelling in their hit from last year, "I Gotta Feeling". No, no, no! "Gotta" = "(have) got to". It should have been "I Got a Feeling". Maybe the rule they're following is that if it's a slangy contraction, it should have a doubled consonant if at all possible, as with "gonna", "wanna", "whattaya/whaddya", and "finna" (but not "tryna").
Tuesday April 27th 2010, 4:32 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Good point, Anon! I would just as easily pronounce that EEEma because of the way I think the name of a character in one of my favourite novels is pronounced.

There's probably a linguistic explanation for which it is, but with English, IMHO, one never knows!

On the other hand, I read that 'imma' as 'I'ma' right away. I just didn't follow the contraction of it from that whole phrase with any kind of sense.

I can understand that it arose as African-American speech, but I got lost in the transitional phases from there.

I don't think I'll be too content with the acceptance into standard of words from rap. I think I'd rather have the words coming from other source, people who are more familiar with a variety of words beginning with 'm' and 'f'.

Should have a giggly smiley here. LOL will have to do!
Wednesday May 12th 2010, 3:57 PM
Comment by: Rachel G.
I thought that that phrase had come from people saying "I'ma gonna"...
Wednesday May 12th 2010, 4:31 PM
Comment by: Neal WhitmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
The run is broken. This week's top song is "OMG" by Usher, and it doesn't have "Imma". It could have, but instead, the line in question goes, "I did it again, so I'm gone let the beat drop." He went the "gone" route that in the other songs was used for persons other than "I".

Anonymous: I consider your idea on the blog post.
Wednesday May 12th 2010, 8:50 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Jane B:
Don't forget, "On Top of Old Smokey" while making your list!
Roger
Tuesday June 8th 2010, 10:58 AM
Comment by: Neal WhitmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks to Ben Zimmer, the earliest known appearance of Imma/I'ma in a rap song is now 1979, in Spoonie G's "Spoonin' Rap":
See I'ma get the man good and I'ma get him right
See I'ma roll my barrel and keep the bullets still

The words also include references to disco and 8-tracks, as well as the nonsense phrase la di da di, which I had thought was the invention of Doug E. Fresh in 1985. In an email, Ben provided these links to the lyrics and an audio recording.
Tuesday June 8th 2010, 4:27 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Anyone else remember 'C'mon-a my house, a mya house"? That was honestly treated as being Italian dialect, though. Or Italian English?

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