How Twitter Has Changed Language

If there was one thing I kept on saying in 2012 it was the technology and the internet have changed forever the way that language evolves. But while I had my own instincts and observations to back that up, I was also looking around for something else to validate those claims.

So it was exciting to come across the work of Jacob Eisenstein towards the end of last year. He and his colleagues at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta have analysed a huge body of Twitter data from large cities in America and have shown how this contributes to the development of language.

The researchers found that many new words are born on Twitter, which isn’t a surprise. But what was more interesting was the way that they then grew and moved. New words often appear in cities with large African American populations before hopping to other large, urban areas. For example “bruh”, an alternative spelling of “bro” or “brother”, first arose in a few south-east cities before moving to California.

I spoke to Professor Eisenstein about the work that he and his team are undertaking, and tried to find out what it said about current language evolution and what it promised for the future.

He said: “Some of what we saw is orthographic, or a transcription of phonological differences. There are some new abbreviations, most of them not really fit for print. They tend to be quite specific geographically.”

One particular interesting aspect of Twitter language is that it is conversational English, but expressed in written form, possibly leading to a new type of communication.

Professor Eisenstein speculated: “People want to express meaning on multiple levels, maybe how you feel about it the person you are talking to. In spoken conversation you can do that without altering your vocabulary, but on Twitter you have to alter it.

“Written language was for more formal purposes but now people are using it for social interaction which might have been spoken, so written language has to be more mutli-level than it was in the past.”

He said that since first working on the subject, patterns of language movement have already started to change. For example, AF (meaning As Fuck), was characteristic of southern California, but subsequent analysis has found that it has now moved to Atlanta and is  more popular, proof of how things are changing.

In fact, the pace of change is one of the surprising things. He said: “You wouldn’t expect other types of language change to happen in two years – a generation would be a fast change, but this is very fast, happening in only a couple of years.

“I’m not sure that it’s just a Twitter thing. There is clearly a need to do things in written language that you can’t do in existing convention.”

The next step for the Professor and his team and is to analyse Twitter messages in more fine grained detail, as well as taking the work out side the US. But what is clear is that Twitter provides a unique corpus of language as it is being used, and changing today, and the work carried out on this will give us valuable insights into how English will evolve in 2013 and beyond.

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3 responses to “How Twitter Has Changed Language

  1. Very interesting findings that written language needs more levels now and that Twitter has accelerated linguistic change. Though I’m from Southern California I’m unfamiliar with the abbreviation AF, but I guess the first word is ass.

  2. Pingback: I Heart The Word of the Year | Wordability

  3. Pingback: Language’s Greatest Era | Wordability

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