Ima say suttin

Katy Steinmetz, a journalist for Time Magazine recent summarized “What Twitter Says to Linguists” (Time Magazine, September 9, 2013). Actually Steinmetz mostly mentions the kind of sociolinguists who like to make statements like:

the term “suttin” (a variant of something) has been associated with Boston-area tweets.

using methods such as:

researchers at Carnegie Mellon developed an automated tagger that can identify bits of tweetspeak that aren’t standard English, like “Ima” (which serves as a subject, verb and preposition to convey “I am going to”).

Personally, I would say that these methods will be more useful for a social history of the present than about linguistics.

That is, as far as I can see, both Chomsky and Labov would agree that “Ima” is a fully grammatical form of the English way to mark the future tense of the verb following: “Ima” is another way of doing “I’ll.”  Whether “Ima” derives historically from “I am going to” is interesting but has little to say about the current state of twittering English.  If it “takes” outside Twitter (and it may already have (ask Labov or his students)), new speakers will have to be told that there are now three forms of the future in English: “I shall,” “I will,” “Ima.”  And then, they will be told of the contextual “rules” that appear to govern which form to use when and with whom.

Those who know will have noticed that I have restated the (in-)famous Saussurian distinction between diachrony and synchrony—though with a twist.  The cultural question (to keep the word “social” for probabilistic statements about the recent past) is whether the new linguistic forms that continually appear–not only in Twitter, but every time someone speaks–will “take,” that is whether they will remain associated with a person, a small group, an activity, etc., or whether they will “be adopted in the collective mode” (paraphrase of something Lévi-Strauss once wrote to distinguish individual statements from myths in L’homme nu 1971: 560).

In other words, “Ima” (and the resistance against it) may become the “imposition of a cultural arbitrary by a cultural arbitrary” (Bourdieu and Passeron 1977 [1970]: 5)—unless it fails to impose itself.  In any event, the important thing about all this is the arbitrariness of the process that leads to “Ima,” its imposition (partially helped by the Time magazine article which taught people like me about the form), and its demise (as current users age out and new forms are developed).  As I have argued in other posts (9/6/2013, 9/30/2013), the future of cultural forms cannot be predicted by any analysis of the state of the present.  “Ima” is not simply “functional” in a world where statements are limited to 140 characters.  “Ill” would have worked as well.  So “Ima” is, in Boon’s terms “extra-vagant” (1999), a poetic (in Jakobson’s sense) play on grammatical/dialectal possibilities and constraints.

Note, for example, that “Ima” marks first person redundantly in a least three ways: through 1) leaving the “I” in, 2) capitalized, 3) with the first person “(a)m” form of the verb (check what McDermott and I wrote about Maxine Hong Kingston tale of her difficulty reading “I” aloud 1998: Introduction).  And may thereby signal the continued relevance of “individualism” as the field for hegemonic pratices.

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