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.

The Swiftkey Way To Learning New Words

The number of new words contributed to the English language by technology is well known. But how does a company which provides technology to help with language and communication cope with the ever-expanding tide of vocabulary?

Swiftkey in action

Swiftkey has garnered praise and awards for its predictive text app. Its nifty software allows users of Android devices to speed up their typing by anticipating what they are going to type and then suggesting it for them.

I wondered how the Swiftkey database keeps up to date, to ensure that it can offer users the newest words on the block. So I asked Dr Caroline Gasperin, who leads a team of eight language processing engineers responsible for most language-related tasks at the London-based company.

She explained that Swiftkey learns an individual’s linguistic habits, and that by extension this grows its global database as a result.

“Your SwiftKey will learn any word you teach it, you only have to type it once and it will be included in your personal language model on your device,” she said.

“Through the Personalisation feature – which allows you to sync it with your Gmail, Facebook and Twitter accounts – and through continuous use, SwiftKey learns the words you use and the contexts in which you use them so that its predictions and corrections are based on your own way of writing.”

This learning can then feed into the overall word database to help the word corpus grow. Caroline said: “We’ve started putting in place the infrastructure for learning new words from our user base.

“As users use the Personalisation feature of SwiftKey, we are able to collect statistics about the words they use and identify words that we did not know before. We are putting in place a semi-automatic process to identify which of those words could become part of a standard dictionary and consequently become part of our downloadable language modules.

“This process consists of observing the frequency of use of words over time: words which used to have few occurrences across our user base, but which start becoming more frequent over time, and which are mentioned by several of our users instead of by just one or a few, are considered as good candidates for being added to our dictionaries.

“It’s worth adding we take our users’ privacy extremely seriously and have policies in place to safeguard this. We do not process a user’s data personally.”

Dr Caroline Gasperin
Dr Caroline Gasperin

So has the way that new words are assimilated changed, and is the process quicker than before? Caroline said: “We look into how many different people have used an unknown word in order to consider it as a potential new word in the language instead of a personal word.

“We take our users’ privacy seriously, so we’ve developed ways to discover words in wide use instead of focusing on single users.

“We haven’t followed users’ language use for long enough to know whether new words are being adopted faster than before, but we are working on getting those statistics.”

I have long since believed that new words are being created and accepted into the language considerably quicker than before, with technology the principal driver behind that evolution. It would be interesting to revisit Swiftkey at some point soon to see whether those promised statistics back up that theory. And the company also gives us a very clear steer about how its core business has to adapt to the ever-changing delights of the English language.

Does Hate-watching Define a Generation?

We all know that there is a certain insidious pleasure in watching something that is really, really bad. I have enjoyed many conversations about the worst film ever made (it’s Flowers in the Attic, in case you were wondering). But there is a difference between stumbling across something which happens to be bad, and then critically savaging it limb from limb, and actually seeking out that which we detest on a regular basis and then avidly watching it.

But so it is with hate-watching, a newly identified social trend which involves people choosing to watch garbage on television and then tweeting about how much they detest it. Recent US drama Smash is generally cited as the most hate-watched programme around.

I have a number of issues with this. Let’s start with the language side of it, Wordability’s bread and butter. Because I can’t find a reliable alternative explanation, I’m guessing that the word comes from a Twitter hashtag #hatewatching. But that doesn’t appear on that many tweets, suggesting that many of the people partaking are not necessarily conscious that they are now in a newly-defined trend. Tweets which begin “I hate watching…” seem to be much more common. All of which means that commentators have pinned the label onto the activity to pigeon-hole it, rather than the word evolving naturally.

Hate-watching as a term also conjures up immediate assocations for me which detract from what it actually means. The use of ‘Hate’ implies to me an ideological and active hatred, a sense of the politics of hate, rather than a critical and therefore harmless loathing. Hate-watchers, just on a gut reaction to the word, sound like people who preach a culture of hate and then see how that pans out, rather than the more passive people they are, with their only weapon being a keyboard and a slightly cavalier approach to grammar.

But leaving the word aside, it is more what hate-watching says about 21st century life than anything else. As I said at the outset, we all discover and take delight in things that are terrible. But after we have seen them once, surely we have better things to do with our time than to endure them again. Is life becoming so empty, so devoid of useful activity, that we have to fill the vacuum with things we don’t actually like, and then talk about them. For me, hate-watching says something quite fundamental about how people are frittering away their time on earth, and that is a waste that I really do hate to watch.

Mobile Users Having A Smishing Time

You can always tell when a new word hasn’t caught on – two or three years after it is first coined, it still has inverted commas around it when hits the headlines.

So it is with Smishing, the mobile cousin of phishing. It is the practice of sending bogus text messages to people in order to con them and was actually coined in 2006 in a blog on the McAfee website. But six years later, it has still not shed its inverted commas or the sense that people are seeing it for the first time.

Smishing is currently in the news in America because of an outbreak of fake Wal-Mart related text messages. It has led to much coverage of a new type of cyber attack but all the articles confirm that despite its few years of linguistic existence, it is a term that none of us have ever heard of.

Which begs the question of why. Smishing is derived from SMS and Phishing, and simply conflates the two. Phishing is itself a conflation, though not an obvious one. It takes fishing and combines it the ph from phone phreaking, which is the art of cracking the phone network.

Despite its rather convoluted derivation, phishing works as a word. You can immediately understand it as it has the element of fishing for something until you get a catch, in this case a cyber one, and the ‘ph’ spelling makes it seem kind of techy, even if you have no idea why it is actually spelt like that.

But smishing? It doesn’t have the benefit of sounding like another word. It actually sounds pretty daft. And because of its slight ludicrousness, it is hard to imagine it being talked about with the same seriousness as its email ancestor.

So even though there is a growing problem of spam text messages landing on people’s mobiles around the world, I don’t expect to see Smishing finding its way into common vocabulary any time soon.

Chatterboxing is the New Way to Talk

The advent of Twitter has spawned many Twittish words, but the latest seems to be one of the more bizarre.

Second screens are one of the trendy subjects at the moment in the mobile phone and tablet worlds. This is the idea that while you are in front of the television, you have your second screen on your lap or in your hand and are merrily interacting with it while you watch.

One way that people interact is to chat to others on Twitter about the programme they are viewing, and this social interaction becomes as important to them as the programme itself. And what are they doing? They are chatterboxing.

It’s not clear to me how this word has come about. I think it is more than just taking the well-established word chatterbox and making it into a verb, because that implies excessive talking, and chatterboxing involves no talking at all. Instead, I suspect it could be a play on words, chatting while watching the box, an almost defiantly old-fashioned word to help with a new habit. But however it has come about, it is an activity that will stay and expand, and I suspect the word is here to stay.

Online dictionaries are not yielding definitions at the moment, though they’re soon likely to catch up. Having said that, there is a definition on the Urban Dictionary. It suggests that chatterboxing is “the act of talking shit”.

So it’s pretty accurate then.

Brogrammers Making Computing Cool

There is a cliched image of computer programmers. It involves words such as geek or nerd, and images of quiet and bespectacled individuals sitting in corners, headphones plugged in, reams of code spiralling down the screen in front of them.

But no more. It seems there is a new breed of computer whizz, cooler and with attitude. These coding experts can drink heavily and party with the best of them, but they still work hard. And they are not programmers. They are Brogrammers.

The word, bringing the “bro” greeting together with “programmer”, is now beginning to gain currency across the internet, and there is a burgeoning Facebook group with more than 22,000 members. But it is not universally popular, with others criticising the term and worrying that it will make a male-dominated profession even harder for women to break into. And they argue that it is a terrible word.

Is it terrible? Well it is funny, and I can see it catching on in a niche way. However, the accusation of it being sexist is entirely valid. It could end up growing as a kind of polarising term for different kinds of coders, rather than as the joke that it clearly is now. Nevertheless, I think it is here to stay, for a time at least.

But I am much more entertained by the linguistic possibilities that it suggests for the future. What if we could apply this subtle change to a number of other words? Just think, we could have:

  • Advancing in your career while partying – Bromotion
  • Sleeping with a really cool guy – Brocreation
  • Dietary supplements taken by heavy drinkers – Brobiotics

I’d better stop now. You’ll soon be needing Brotection from any more of this nonsense.

Nomophobia and the Fear of Language Failure

Two thirds of us live in fear of being without our mobile phones, a new survey has said. It seems that as a nation, we are suffering from nomophobia.

Yes, that really is nomophobia, derived from ‘no-mobile-phobia’ and meaning ‘the fear of being out of mobile phone contact’.

OK, many of us worry about losing our phones. I certainly do. I worry about putting it somewhere and not knowing where it is, or someone stealing it, or dropping it down the toilet (loomophobia?). But to attempt to give this a name that implies it is a mental condition, that you could get treatment for it, no, this seems a step too far.

You could be forgiven for thinking this is a brand new word, dreamt up in the last week by a PR agent desperate to get coverage for a story about a new mobile application that makes your phone grow legs and chase after you so you are never out of contact.

But no. It turns out that nomophobia is nearly four years old, and dates from a Post Office survey of 2008 about mobile phone usage. The word was coined at the time. But it is not in dictionaries, you will struggle to find an online meaning for it, and it is only being heard now because it has been reused in a fresh survey which pretty much rehashes what was said four years ago.

So what does this tell us from a language point of view? Broadly, a word will not catch on if it is not covering a semantic gap. The world has not been crying out for a word to describe fear of losing a mobile, it sounds like a gimmicky word created to support a story, and therefore it didn’t stick the first time. In addition, it’s not a very good word, because it is not immediately obvious what it means when you hear it. When I first heard the word, I thought it might be fear of small red-hatted creatures standing at the bottom of your garden.

I strongly suspect that nomophobia will disappear from consciousness as quickly as it reappeared this week, and may only resurface to feature in a list of the most annoying words of the year.