Mebbe gonna hafta get useta 'gotta'

What a relief to be able to cross something off my list of worries: I've decided that "gonna," "gotta," and similar colloquial forms, known as "reductions" or "elisions," are not necessarily threats to civilization as we know it.

I've been mellowed out - somewhat - by a new book, "Unfolding of Language" by linguist Guy Deutscher. The specific insight from the book that made me relax a bit was that "going to," used in reference to a specific physical/geographic destination, never elides into "gonna," not even in casual conversation. Compare: "I'm going to the gym tonight. I'm gonna work out."

In other words, the temporal "gonna" is not just sloppy diction and muddled thinking. It's different from the more carefully enunciated spatial "going to." No one would say, "I'm gonna the gym tonight." In a century or two, who knows? This construction may be standard written English. Let's cross that bridge when we come to it, as my mom used to say.

And in the meantime, let's think about "let's." Like many idioms, "let's" phrases are put together from spare parts: an imperative verb with an implicit subject, plus the "us," which serves as the subject (doer) of whatever infinitive verb then gets tacked on. "Let's cross that bridge"= "[you] let us [to] cross that bridge."

In the main, the difference between "let's" and "let us" is that the former includes the one or ones being addressed in the activity, and the latter doesn't. Compare, "Hey, Mom, let's go to the movies tonight," and "Hey, Mom, let us go to the movies tonight." In the first example, Mom is likely to go along; in the second, she'll stay home and wait up for the kids.

Each of these constructions has evolved to meet specific needs. If you're a native speaker of English, you've probably never given this a thought.

Grammarians have a way of talking about this difference between "going to" and "gonna," or "let us" and "let's." They distinguish between "content words" (dog, tree, walk, sing, red) and "form" words, or grammatical words (an, the, must, not). When "go" refers to physical motion, and "let" means "to give permission," they are content words. But in other usages, they are what grammarians call "form words," separated from their usual meaning.

The good old-fashioned verb "get" has gone through levels of meaning, as Mr. Deutscher points out, from concrete to ever more abstract, moving from content word to form word. "He got a root beer out of the fridge for her" is the language of concrete action. The next level shows possession: "I've got three kinds of frozen pizza, plus some leftover Chinese. What's your pleasure?" Then comes obligation ("Look, you've got to be on time this once; it's your sister's wedding, for heaven's sake.") Then certainty: "He's gotta be there; he's just not picking up." At this level, the "got" phrase is equivalent to "must" and has morphed from content to form word.

"Used to" is a backward-looking counterpart of "going to," an idiomatic way of expressing the habitual past. ("We used to [useta? usta?] eat there all the time, but then a new chef took over and the place went downhill.") "Used" in this sense is a "form word." Compare: "Do you know what technique he used to achieve that effect?"

This is how language evolves. It takes materials on hand and adapts them to new purposes. I'm glad to see "gonna," "gotta," and their kin in this larger context.

But they won't be appearing as standard English in our pages just yet. Not on my watch, at least.

This appears with links at: http:// weblogs.csmonitor.com /verbal_energy

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