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When I chat, I'll sometimes hear "I'mma ..." as in:

"I'mma go now" or "I'mma open that for you"

I am not sure how it's written, I have never gotten a precise answer when I've asked.

Where does it come from, and what does it mean?

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    Given how different some of the answers below are, I'm confused how anyone would consider this "General Reference". I even tried searching for "imma" in several of links listed as general references for this site, and got nada. One of the answers below did find it under a different spelling on wictionary, but the information in that link directly contradicts the one I found on wikipedia, and is not nearly as well-sourced.
    – T.E.D.
    Oct 10 '13 at 23:33
  • I guess I hear this so often I assumed it had already made it into the dictionaries. My bad.
    – MrHen
    Oct 11 '13 at 14:39
  • Here's one appearance.
    – E.P.
    Oct 24 '13 at 16:44
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In 2010, linguist Neal Whitman wrote it's the Prime Time for "Imma" commenting on its use in pop lyrics.

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.

Of the origin, he says:

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.

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    Mr. Witman was quite close. However, those who've studied AAVE specifically (the dialect used in the pop lyrics he is referring to) will tell you that there is an actual tense difference between "I'm a-", "I'm a-gonna" (probably what he meant by "I'm gonna"), and "I gonna". See the nice handy table on the AAVE wiki page. This is an important nuance, because "I'm a-kick your ..." is not a future threat but a declaration of immediate action intention. You would be advised not to mix the two up. :-)
    – T.E.D.
    Oct 10 '13 at 14:46
  • I'm about to post a related question, but wondering if maybe it's just this term. Is "ma" in "What ma gonna do?" the same as the "ma" in "I'ma"?
    – AnnanFay
    Feb 28 '18 at 21:38
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    @Annan They're not quite the same. "I'ma" is "I'm gonna": the ma from "M gonnA", and includes the going. The ma in "What ma gonna do?" is from "am I", and doesn't include the going.
    – Hugo
    Mar 1 '18 at 10:41
  • The double-m spelling disrespects the general rule for vowel sounds, and it etymologically makes little sense. Sadly, it seems the most popular spelling.
    – 2540625
    Jul 28 at 17:32
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It sounds to me like the AAVE dialect's first person future immediate. This generally starts off "I'm a-", and is meant to indicate an imminent action. To put it off a bit further in the future, a "gonna" can be appened ("I'm a-gonna..."), and to put it even further off, the "a-" is then removed ("I gonna").

Phase/Tenses of AAVE

Phase I Phase II Example
Past Pre-recent I been flown it
Past Recent I done fly it
Past Pre-present I did fly it
Past Past Inceptive I do fly it
Present Present I be flyin it
Future Immediate I'm a-fly it
Future Post-Immediate I'm a-gonna fly it
Future Indefinite future I gonna fly it

Scraped and transcribed from the linked wiki page

More typical "prestige" dialects of English only have a single future tense, which is roughly equivalent to the AAVE "I gonna" (but without the "gonna").

AAVE is a dialect spoken in most urban areas of the USA, and is the dialect used for many (if not most) forms of American popular music as well. While it is decidedly (and sometimes proudly) not a prestige dialect of English, it is incredibly influential. So bits of it often seep into conversational English. Particuarly so when they are useful bits (the extra tenses and aspects in AAVE are damn useful. I tend to use the aspects myself in casual conversation, even if my audience isn't always familiar with the dialect.)

As for whether you should learn AAVE, that's a tough one. It would help a lot in understanding American Blues, Rap, and Hip-hop lyrics. On the other hand, formal training in it is going to be very hard to come by (again, not being a prestige dialect). I learned what little I know by immersion, and I'm not sure there really is any other good way.

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  • english.stackexchange.com/review/suggested-edits/390927 I can not fit the link, damn text. Jan 10 at 23:23
  • I thought about metaing it too but my karma will take a hit if it gets noisy, can you handle it and cite us here, the link is fine and you get the karma? Or give me encouragement it is a reasonable meta question and I will go through with the pain of asking. I know I caused the issue to be raised, but I will defer to you. (I agree it is a dilemma we want text tables but sometimes CommonMark ain't[/"is not"] gonna work a hundred.) Jan 10 at 23:28
  • Is the determinant "Looks" or "Accessibility" basically, is the question? O:) [P.S. The Wikipedia image-based version actually has a broken text table, 'Present' is not aligned well, notice? :] Jan 10 at 23:42
  • @prosody-GabVereableContext - Honestly, seeing it here in black and white, and not in the diff tool, I think this version is OK. The original was still a bit clearer, but this is probably good enough. Its at least not more confusing than it has to be.
    – T.E.D.
    Jan 11 at 13:45
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I'mma is a slang contraction of I'm gonna. It's common in some dialects; others use it only in an affected manner similar to lolspeak. It's good to know what it means, but I would only recommend adopting it yourself if you're quite comfortable with using slang and know when it's appropriate.

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    In practice in US speech, what's written as I'm going to, or as I'm gonna, is pronounced somewhere around /'amənə/, with 3 syllables, the last two unstressed. In rapid speech, the second nucleus deletes and the two nasals assimilate to a long /m/, leaving /'ammə/. That's pretty normal in whitebread American English faspeech, not just AAVE. Nachally, English orthography doesn't deal with it very well. But this is hardly news. Oct 10 '13 at 17:26
  • Your statement of fact about the meaning of the contraction is correct (or at least plausible, but see T.E.D.s answer), but I think all of your value judgements are off. It's standard slang, especially in certain dialects, not "very casual slang" and it is most often used sincerely. It's only a joke or used as lolspeak, as far as I know, when tied to one particular Kanye West meme ("I'mma let you finish but...").
    – Ben Lee
    Oct 11 '13 at 20:40
  • Thanks for the feedback. I have updated my answer to clarify that it's only sometimes used ironically, and it's a natural part of some dialects. Oct 13 '13 at 2:52
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It's slang for 'I am going to'.

Etymology?
I am going to --> I'm going to --> I'm gonna --> I'mma (usually shortened even further to Imma.)

Sigh. People these days.

If you're comfortable speaking in slang, then do it if you'd like. It isn't a necessity; it's good to know what it means, though. I hate typing in text language (typing lyk dis), so I rarely use such slang.

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    You are correct that "I'm a"- is related to "I'm gonna", so this is close. Not quite though.
    – T.E.D.
    Oct 10 '13 at 14:42
  • It's not "text language"—contractions and slang are a part of language. Living in the American South, I use "I'mma" all the time without thinking about it, along with other prescriptivist horrors like "Where you goin'?". Jun 15 '17 at 23:57

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