“You Tryna Grammaticalize?” An Analysis of “Tryna” as a Grammaticalized Semi-Auxiliary


The present participle of the verb try (trying) has developed a new meaning in contemporary usage. Grammaticalized as tryna, it functions as a semi-auxiliary expressing want or desire. The emergent use is an example of linguistic camouflaging, in which vernacular use resembles an already existing form so closely that it is assumed to be identical to its structural counterpart (Wolfram 2004, 114). The difference is illustrated in the sentence ‘You tryna drink a coke?’ meaning ‘Do you want a coke?’ This form originates in urban African American Vernacular English (AAVE), though the usage has now filtered into many varieties of Mainstream English (ME). Example sentences were pulled from Twitter for semantic and syntactic analysis. Analysis of this novel grammaticalization contributes to the body of formal work on AAVE, provides documentation of a discrete example of English semantic shift, and demonstrates the potential of Twitter as a corpus for linguistic research.

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    The present participle of the verb try (trying) has acquired a new meaning in contemporary usage, which originates in urban African American Vernacular English (AAVE), functioning as a semi-auxiliary expressing want or desire. Tryna is a textbook example of grammaticalization, illustrating three processes commonly linked to the phenomenon: phonetic erosion, morphological reduction, and semantic bleaching (Hainman 1991, 154). In standard usage, try is what is known as a catenative verb, which means it must always be followed by an infinitive. This particular environment is what gives tryna its new form: trying + to V then becomes /tɹajɪn tə/ which erodes further to /tɹaɪnə/, orthographically represented as tryna.

    Phonetic erosion is common in English without necessarily indicating a semantic change. Because of this, there exist in Mainstream English (ME) sentences that contain a form of the verb try that sounds identical to the emergent grammaticalized form, as in the sentence “They’re making too much noise, I’m tryna sleep!” This contrasts with a sentence such as “Everyone wanna be from Chicago, but we tryna get out!!” (See Example 1 in Table 1.) The structure of this sentence shows that tryna is being used to parallel wanna, illustrating the emergent properties.

    One of the main hallmarks of morphological reduction, which is also called decategorialization, is the loss of the ability to be inflected (Heine and Kuteva 2007, 40). For verbs, this typically involves the loss of inflection for tense, aspect, person, and negation (Heine and Kuteva 2007, 41). This often happens to the gerundival form (-ing) of English verbs, like barring, concerning, and considering.

    Semantic bleaching, sometimes called desemanticization, is the loss of meaning content (Heine and Kuteva 2007, 34). Heine and Kuteva define it in their 2007 book The Genesis of Grammar, stating that “Use of a linguistic expression E in a new context C entails that E loses part of its meaning that is incompatible with C” (39).

    Auxiliaries have been well documented in studies of AAVE, ranging from phase auxiliaries such as “steady” (intensified non-habitual continuative), “bin” (perfect progressive), and “finna” (irrealis) to semi-auxiliaries like “come” indicating speaker indignation (Baugh 1984, 3; Green 2002, 71-2; Spears 1982, 850). The emergent use is what is referred to as a camouflaged form, which phonologically resembles an already existing form so closely that it is assumed to be identical to its structural counterpart, a process common in AAVE (Wolfram 2004, 114). Wolfram cautions that “this similarity may disguise the fact that the form carries a distinctive semantic-pragmatic meaning or is constructed in a subtly different way” (2004, 114-15). An example of a camouflaged form in AAVE is the indignant come, as in the sentence “He come walking in here like he own the damn place” (Spears 1982, 852). However, the semi-auxiliary usage becomes clear in a sentence such as “He come coming in here raising all kind of hell” (Spears 1982, 854). In order to illustrate the auxiliary properties of tryna, examples of natural speech are taken from Twitter, chosen for its proclivity for informal communication among young people in urban areas. Tryna is shown to be anomalous in that it is restricted from appearing in several environments in which a main verb can appear, yet it does not fully satisfy the traditional criteria of an auxiliary, and therefore should be considered a semi-auxiliary.

    Literature Review

    Although African American Vernacular English initially developed in the rural South, it has steadily shifted to more urban areas both inside and outside the South. Since the advent of variationist dialectology in the late 1960s, several linguists launched studies in major Northern metropolitan areas (Labov 1972; 1998; Wolfram 1969; 2004; Fasold 1972; Spears 1982; Baugh 1984). The initial Northern urban bias has since been balanced by several studies on rural Southern AAVE (Wolfram 1974; Cukor-Avila 2001; 2002; 2003; Cukor-Avila and Bailey, forthcoming; Bailey 2001; 2007), but urban centers still tend to be the primary focus of linguistic research because they are the areas in which most linguistic innovation happens within AAVE, and change diffuses outward to rural areas (Labov 1998, 151). According to Wolfram, “the center of African American youth culture today is primarily urban, and many norms and models of behavior, including language, seem to radiate outward from these urban cultural hubs” (2004, 113). Spears established a precedent for semi-auxiliaries in AAVE in his 1982 study “The Black English Semi-Auxiliary Come.” He argued in favor of a syntactic model viewing verbs as existing on a continuum between main verb and full auxiliary, rather than a binary distinction, with come somewhere in the middle (856). Semi-auxiliary is then used as a cover term for verbs such as come that “differ in important ways from main verbs, but which may not meet all the commonly accepted syntactic criteria for auxiliaryhood” (856). His requirement was that they meet a semantic criterion: expressing aspect, tense, or mood as well as one or more morphological and syntactic criteria, addressed in the following section (856).


    Twitter is emerging as a source of linguistic and cultural data due to the vast amount of easily accessible information (Golder and Macy 2011). The ways in which researchers can filter through the data are virtually limitless. Natural language data was collected from Twitter using collocation searches. In order to ensure that a variety of structures were studied, the collocation searches utilized four of the grammatical aspects of AAVE: intensified continuative habitual (stay tryna, Example 2, Table 1), intensified continuative non-habitual (steady tryna, Example  3, Table 1), perfect progressive (been tryna, Example 4, Table 1), and irrealis (finna tryna, Example 5, Table 1). Additionally, in order to fully establish the distinction of grammaticalized tryna from the lexical verb try, a search was done to see if they occurred in the same sentence, signifying a semantic distinction (tryna try, Example 6, Table 1).

    Spears established six criteria (1982, 857-9) to distinguish between auxiliary verbs and main verbs, which are utilized in the following discussion. Structures completely absent from the Twitter data are preceded by a question mark to indicate questionable grammaticality.

    (A) Subject-auxiliary inversion in questions: The subject and auxiliaries are inverted to form a question, but lexical verbs are not. Tryna does not appear to fulfill this criterion, as this form never appears in the Twitter data.

                (1)        a. Will she go?

                             b. *Goes she?

                             c. ?Tryna she go?

    (B) Do support: Lexical verbs require do support in order to form questions, but it never occurs before auxiliaries. Here, tryna seems to behave like an auxiliary.

                (2)        a. *Does she might go?

                             b. Does she go?

                             c. ?Does she tryna go?

    (C) Gerundive and infinitival clauses: Usually, auxiliaries cannot occur in these types of clauses, a limitation that lexical verbs do not share. Tryna again only occurs in environments similar to an auxiliary.

                (3)        a. *I asked for her (to) might go.

                             b. I asked for her to go.

                             c. ?I asked for her (to) tryna go.

    (D) Tag formation: Auxiliaries are typically allowed to appear in tag questions while lexical verbs are not. Tryna, like a lexical verb, does not appear in these environments.

                (4)        a. She will go, won’t she/will she not?

                             b. *She goes, goesn’t she/goes she not?

                             c. ?She tryna go, trynan’t she/tryna she not?

    (E) Negative contraction: The negative can be contracted onto the auxiliary, but not a lexical verb. Tryna appears to act like a lexical verb in this situation.

                (5)        a. She wouldn’t go.

                             b. *She preferredn’t to go.

                             c. ?She trynan’t to go.

    (F) Reduction: Auxiliaries sometimes have reduced forms that can be contracted onto the preceding word, which is impossible for lexical verbs. Yet again, tryna seems to follow the pattern of lexical verbs.

                (6)        a. We’ll go immediately.

                             b. *We’ll everything to our daughter. (i.e. ‘We bequeath everything to our daughter)

                             c. ?We’na go immediately.

    Tryna fulfills two of the six criteria for auxiliaryhood, so while it clearly is not a full auxiliary, it does not entirely follow the pattern of lexical verbs either. Like auxiliaries, it does not appear to take do-support or occur in gerundival or infinitival phrases, yet it does not seem to allow subject-auxiliary inversion like full auxiliaries. Like lexical verbs, tryna does not occur in tag questions and does not appear to permit either negative contraction or reduction.

    The natural language data from Twitter shows that tryna appears in combination with several of the semi-modal auxiliaries present in AAVE, suggesting that it is also treated as a preverbal marker. Perhaps most importantly, the grammaticalized form appears in contrast with the lexical verb, as in Example 6, definitively showing that a semantic distinction is being made between the two.


    The gerundive form of the lexical verb try has become a novel grammaticalization in AAVE – tryna, a semi-auxiliary expressing want or desire. This particular form is facilitated by the catenative aspect of try in ME, meaning that it is always followed by a full infinitive (to + verb). Trying to, pronounced /trajiŋ tu/, weakens to /tɹajɪn tə/ which then erodes to /tɹaɪnə/, orthographically represented as tryna which is followed by a bare infinitive. In the Twitter data, tryna does not appear in all the environments of either a lexical verb or a full auxiliary, as it fulfills several but not all of the criteria of an auxiliary: it is uninflected, does not require do support, and cannot occur in infinitival or gerundive clauses, supporting its position as an auxiliary, but it cannot take subject-auxiliary inversion, form a tag question, reduce onto the preceding verb, or form a negative contraction, which are several common properties of auxiliaries (Spears 1982, 859). Since it does not fit into a binary distinction between main verb and auxiliary verb, this implies that it lies somewhere on a continuum between the two, and should be considered a semi-auxiliary, similar to come as documented by Spears in 1982. This new form is often difficult to distinguish from the standard lexical verb, because on the surface, it appears in many of the same environments: a phenomenon called linguistic camouflaging, common in AAVE. However the grammaticalized semi-auxiliary tryna can appear in the same verb phrase as the lexical verb try, indicating that there is a semantic distinction being made. Additionally, tryna co-occurs with several established auxiliaries in AAVE, strengthening the analysis as a preverbal marker.


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    Table 1: Examples of the Use of Tryna in Tweets

    Example 1: Wanna & tryna Everybody wanna be from Chicago but we tryna get out!!!
    Example 2: Stay tryna I stay tryna teach somebody a lesson.
    Example 3: Steady tryna Hoes steady tryna give advice.
    Example 4. Been tryna New number so you been tryna hit me up #im sorry
    Example 5: Finna tryna I finna tryna order a Rocket Launcher
    Example 6. Tryna try This cereal trash .. I’m steady tryna try sum new shit smh