I’m gonna lay down a three-part fact here:
Eye dialect is hypocritical, handy, and hazardous.
What’s eye dialect? It’s when you spell something “incorrectly” the way pretty much anyone would say it rather than the way it’s officially spelled, to indicate something about the speaker to whom it’s attributed and/or the context in which it’s presented. And by “something” I mean typically a lack of education, or at least a very informal, “folksy” context, which is just a positive tinge onto the same lower social position.
So if, for instance, a character in a book says “I seen my reflekshun,” the “I seen” is nonstandard grammar, but the “reflekshun” is eye dialect: it’s exactly the way everyone says it, so the implication is just that the speaker would spell it that way if they wrote it down because they’re, you know, [makes deprecatory hand gesture].
Among the most common – and consequently least negatively toned – bits of eye dialect are woulda, coulda, shoulda, and, of course, gonna.
Everyone says going to as “gonna” most of the time when it’s used as a modal auxiliary. For one thing, frequent and unstressed grammatical widgets are usually uttered with the minimum necessary effort – heck, I often really say “I’n a” rather than even “I’m gonna”; for another, it allows us to differentiate between auxiliary and main-verb uses, for example between “Are you gonna get that now?” and “Are you going to get that now?” (the latter, spoken with full value, meaning “Are you going now to get that?”). You wouldn’t say or write “I’m gonna the store.”
But, because this is English and we just love showing where things came from and how they’re put together, and – more importantly – we love using spelling as a torture test and badge of virtue, we still insist on the “correct” (socially valued) spelling being going to – and would have, could have, should have – even when we say it in the reduced way.
So I think it’s plain why I say eye dialect is hypocritical: we use it to look down on people for doing exactly what we – and everyone we consider the “right sort” – do on the regular. (Do you protest? OK, tell me what your reaction is when you see that someone has written “I would of done it if I’d of known.” And then tell me the difference between how you would pronounce that and how you normally pronounce “I would have done it if I’d have known.” If you see “would of” in a novel, it’s because it’s attributed to a character who would write it that way.)
Why do I say eye dialect is handy? Ah, because that very class connotation – the one that is arrantly hypocritical when we use it to look down on others – lets us establish tone when we’re using it in our own voice: we can present ourselves as “casual,” “folksy,” “honest” (honesty is a virtue typically viewed as inversely correlated with sophistication – yes, it’s been studied: we tend to see it that way; and yes, we’re wrong about that: in reality there’s no correlation one way or the other).
Yes, it’s still hypocritical, maybe even doubly so because we’re using it to avail ourselves positively of a distinction we otherwise wield negatively: when other people do it they’re unintelligent, but when we do it we’re folksy and honest. But ya know what? The more we use the spelling gonna generally as a colloquial usage, the more it loses the “unintelligent” connotation, so I’m not opposed to it. Which is fine, because everyone’s gonna use it anyway.
OK, so why do I say eye dialect is hazardous? I don’t mean as a further elaboration on the class distinctions. I mean for people learning English as a second (or later) language. I’ve known people who learned English as adolescents or adults who hadn’t quite processed that gonna is informal when written and relaxed when spoken. A professor I had would use it in comments and letters written in otherwise academic English. A co-worker always said it (in her slight German accent) with very clear and deliberate enunciation: “Are you gun na do that?” – which sounded more odd and awkward than if she had just full enounced the formal version, “Are you going to do that?”
So how long, by the way, have we been doing this?
That’s a two-pronged question, and the answer to the first prong – how long we’ve been reducing “going to” to “gonna” in speech – is that I have no way of knowing exactly for sure, but the odds are good that it’s just about as long as we’ve been using going to as a modal auxiliary. There are four very common phonological processes involved:
- place assimilation, wherein the /ŋ/ moves to the front of the mouth and is realized as [n] because it’s between a front vowel [ɪ] and a stop at the tip of the tongue [t] – either one could be enough to move it forward, as we see from the common and long-established practice of saying -ing as [ɪn];
- assimilation and deletion, wherein the [t] just gets Borged right into that [n] and disappears – we do tend to reduce /t/ very often, turning it into a flap as in [bʌɾɹ̩] for butter or into a glottal stop as in [bʌʔn̩] for button, and this deletion is just the ultimate reduction;
- deletion again, in this case the [ɪ] before the [n]; and
- reduction, when we make the minimum effort in pronouncing the o and it comes out just as [ə] (an argument could be made that the deletion of the [ɪ] is part of this reduction).
Basically, we say it as “gonna” because we naturally conserve effort when speaking – there’s a trade-off between conserving the effort of articulating the word and conserving the effort of being understood, and with modal auxiliaries, the effort of being understood is usually the lesser problem.
The answer to the second prong – how long we’ve been writing it as gonna – is just over a century in North America, but about a century longer than that in Scotland, if the available published citations are to be believed. Eye dialect did have a bit of a vogue in the US in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and this spelling was likely encouraged by that.
So there you have it. One of the most common bits of “wrong” spelling, so entrenched that in some contexts these days you’re making more of a point if you spell it the “right” way: picture Janet Jackson’s “What’s It Gonna Be” as “What’s It Going to Be,” or Led Zeppelin’s “We’re Gonna Groove” as “We’re Going to Groove” (and then why go halfway? why not “What Is It Going to Be” and “We Are Going to Groove”?). Eventually it might even qualify just as nonstandard spelling, not eye dialect. But my points about eye dialect are still gonna stand…