When a songwriter crosses the Atlantic to borrow an English word, it’s always strategic. Think of David Bowie here.
Why reject the ‘correct’ English version: What’s it Going to Be? Because gonna flows where going to would trip and tangle. Gonna offers a simple, double schwa sound, a light, uncomplicated meaning and an extra touch of ‘cool’:
Sound, slang and an eye on the American market come together in Shura’s choice. Gunna is rarely written down – most British speakers pronounce gonna as gunna and write gunna as gonna. Many American speakers round the o to make more of a gawnna sound. The word is recognised on both sides of the Atlantic.
The English-teacher-pleasing alternative: What’s it Going to Be? sounds impatient and pernickety. Try singing or saying What’s It Going to Be? into Shura’s musical line. You find the extra ng of going forcing the it back into a compressed, peevish version of itself. The t sharpens into a pinprick of sound. It’s not comfortable, for singer or listener.
Meaning and sound collide perfectly in gonna, in this song. But, and it’s a big but: gonna (or wanna, gotta etc) don’t fit every song. They’re choices. They need to earn their place in your lyrics. Gonna, wanna, gotta aren’t badges of ‘cool’. They’re sounds carrying nuanced meaning. You need to use the sound and the meaning with care.
British songwriter Des’ree chooses gotta instead of got to in her song You Gotta Be. You’ve Got to Be would have been correct, but cluttered. Got to needs fussy manipulation of the mouth and lips. Pouting and pursing to form the oo sound of to. A distraction.
Gotta, like gonna, is a double beat with a strong, soft consonant centre, ending in a relaxed schwa sound.
Des’ree wants her audience to focus on the last word in each line of her chorus: You gotta be … bold/tough/stronger/calm/wiser etc. That’s where her message lies. Gotta‘s perfect: light and even, speeding listeners onwards, towards the important words, without drawing attention to itself:
Aside from its sound, the word gotta gives a friendly, sisterly atmosphere to Des’ree’s song. If she’d stayed with the purely grammatical: You’ve got to be stronger/wiser/bold etc, she would have sounded heckling and disappointed, as if the audience wasn’t good enough for her.
You gotta be sounds inclusive, as if Des’ree is talking to all women, herself included. You becomes the generic you. Gotta makes that happen.
If you didn’t live your teenage years in an English speaking country: treat gonna, wanna, gotta and other colloquial English words with care. It’s easy to sound foolish if you use them in the wrong way, in the wrong place.
When you hear them in English language songs, always ask yourself why. Why gonna not going to? Try singing or saying the ‘correct’ grammatical version along with the music, a coupe of times – what do you lose? The songwriter has always made a choice.
No songwriter is illiterate. Colloquial trumps grammar in some situations, but not all. Why does Pharrell Williams sing Because I’m happy not ‘Cos I’m happy? Why ‘Clap along if you feel like that’s what you wanna do‘ but not ‘that’s what you want to do’? Why casual in one place and not in another?
© Sing Better English, 2016