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.

Click here to read more articles from Behind the Dictionary.

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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