Relaxed pronunciation, which is part of informal speech, is a feature of languages all over the world. In English, you hear it in familiar words such as wanna, gonna, and coulda.
Do the written forms look strange? You may consider them totally acceptable, egregiously wrong, or somewhere in between.
It’s a safe assumption to say that my 74-year-old father (and former English teacher) would sooner misplace a modifier than write “I’m gonna look into it” in an email to me. My wife’s 16-year-old cousin, on the other hand, probably wouldn’t hesitate to write it in a text message.
But those are the forms that you write. They’re nothing more than spelled-out approximations of our speech. And both my septuagenarian father and my wife’s teenage cousin use wanna (and others) in speech. I know because I’ve heard them. (Believe it, Dad.)
Types of Informal Speech
An easy way to think about informal speech is to think about how we speak to one another. Sure, there’s that formal presentation you made last week in the boardroom, but for the most part, human conversation is casual.
Think about who you talk to the most every day—your boyfriend or girlfriend, your spouse, your kids, etc.
Even if you talk to coworkers the most, the speech you use is probably fairly informal. (This doesn’t hold true across all cultures, by the way—some workplace cultures in foreign countries are much more formal than in the U.S.)
I have yet to find data on the percentage of formal vs. informal speech for the average American, but, according to the research in this 1993 linguistics paper, people who have a more formal speaking style also have richer vocabularies.
English speakers use slang every day. It’s practically a way of life!
Words such as dude, cool, and stoked have all changed over time. Their original meanings—if they even apply anymore—have been replaced by an alternate meaning.
The word dude, for example, has an interesting history. We now use it to refer to any man or boy (and I’ve even heard it used to refer to a woman or girl), but it wasn’t always this way.
According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word may have come from shortening Yankee Doodle. People in the American West used it to refer to “big city types” from the East Coast—hence the term dude ranch.
The first recorded use of dude referring to any male was in the mid-1960s; it was part of African-American slang. The word has since been adopted by everybody—black and white, young and old, male and female. (My white, 70-year-old mother even says dude from time to time.)
Ah, yes. What post about informal speech would be complete without a mention of curse words? Words such as damn, shit, and fuck show up in casual speech. Depending on the context and the speakers, profanity can be humorous, awkward, offensive, or insulting.
One thing it almost always is, however, is informal. (How many times have you heard a Supreme Court justice swear?)
And this isn’t true just for U.S. English. The French love to curse.
As I mentioned at the top of this post, relaxed pronunciation is a big part of informal speech. The next time that you’re on the phone with a friend, do an experiment: see if you hear gonna or coulda instead of going to or could have.
What’s interesting is that everybody does this—even the very highly educated and people who you think would take pains to avoid talking like this.
For example, on October 7, 2015, Kai Ryssdal, host of the radio show Marketplace, interviewed then presidential candidate Ben Carson. Now, Ryssdal is a radio host and his interviewee was a presidential candidate, so you might think that the exchanges between the two were rather formal.
Nope. Ryssdal repeatedly used gonna (instead of “going to”) in the interview. In fact, he used the more relaxed form 15 times during the 26-minute interview. (You can hear the first gonna starting shortly after the 4:09 mark.)
And just to be clear, I’m not criticizing Ryssdal for being “sloppy” or overly casual with his guest. I’m just using this as one example of informal speech in a fairly formal setting.
Informal Speech Has a Long History
Does wanna sound like a recent invention? It’s not. According to Google’s Ngram viewer, the phrase “I wanna be” first appears in American fiction in 1865. (Slide your cursor along the red line below.)
Wanna stands alone as a relaxed pronunciation form. It can mean “want to” as well as “want a.” (While hosting a backyard barbecue, your buddy turns to you and says, “Ya wanna beer?”)
This meaning—wanna for “want a”—can lead to funny misinterpretations. (See below for one of my better dad jokes.)
Relaxed Pronunciation: More Examples from English
Examples of relaxed pronunciation in English are wouldja (for “would you”), it’d (for “it would,” often pronounced as id), and shoulda (for “should have”).
We should also add prolly (“probably”) to the list.
These forms are more often spoken than written, but they’ve become so commonplace in English that smartphone keyboards now suggest them as you type.
Of course, no discussion of relaxed pronunciation would be complete without a reference to “Wannabe,” the Spice Girls’ breakout hit. It uses wanna liberally. (Hey, we language geeks know infectious pop when we hear it.)