Analysis of billions of Twitter words reveals how American English develops

September 26, 2018, University of Birmingham
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Linguists and geographers analysed 8.9 billion words contained within 980 million Tweets posted across the United States between 2013 and 2014 to identify the regions from which new words tend to originate.

Led by Professor Jack Grieve, from the Centre for Corpus Research at the University of Birmingham, researchers used advanced computer technology to analyse the geocoded Tweets which revealed the precise longitude and latitude of the user at the time of posting.

They tracked the origin of 54 newly emerging words in American English. For example, they found that the word 'baeless', which mean 'to be single', originated from Deep South, while the word 'mutuals', which is short for 'mutual friends', originated from the West Coast.

Geo-coded data from Twitter allowed them to create maps for these 54 words, showing how the phrases had spread across the country over time.

Applying modern computational techniques to the study of language variation and change, the team identified that development of new words in Modern American English centred on five regions: The West Coast, the Northeast, the Mid Atlantic, the Deep South, and the Gulf Coast.

Professor Grieve commented: "This is the first time that such a large sample of emerging words or any type of linguistic innovation has been mapped in one language. Twitter is only one variety of language, but given that almost all these words are used in everyday speech, we believe our results reflect the words' general spread in American English.

"Our study provides a framework for future research by showing how the origin and spread of emerging words can be measured and mapped. Linguistics is shifting from a social science to a data science, where linguists are increasingly analysing massive amounts of natural language harvested online.

"This is allowing us to pursue new research questions that would have been impossible to investigate just a few years ago. We can analyse in very fine detail how changes over short periods of time and understand the processes through which languages evolve—one of the most challenging questions in science."

The researchers' findings also challenge existing theories of the spread of new words. They show that new words do not simply spread out unconstrained from their source, nor do they spread from one large city to the next, as predicted by previously developed theories for the spread of new words, known as the 'wave' and 'gravity' models.

Instead, the study found the spread of new words is constrained by cultural patterns. New words tend to spread within cultural regions, before reaching the rest of the United States. It also found that African American English was a major source of lexical innovation on US Twitter.

Professor Grieve is speaking about the team's research at the New Ways of Analyzing Variation (NWAV) conference held at New York University from October 18 to 21. He will focus on how these words spread just in New York City over the time period in question, as well as delivering a workshop on 'computational sociolinguistics'.

Explore further: Biggest ever linguistic survey on Twitter could find the next 'selfie' or 'twerk'

More information: Jack Grieve et al, Mapping Lexical Innovation on American Social Media, Journal of English Linguistics (2018). DOI: 10.1177/0075424218793191

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5 comments

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julianpenrod
1 / 5 (4) Sep 26, 2018
If you look at the list of areas claimed to initiate new English verbiage, The Great Plains is left out.
It turns out many significant things fall outside the Great Plains.
Strange phenomena, for example, such as the Oregon Vortex; the Winchester House; the site of the Lubbock Lights; the site of the Mantell UFO encounter; Socorro; Area 51; Racetrack Playa; Mel's Hole; Dulce; Lake Champlain; Kecksburg; Roswell; the Flatwoods Monster; The Skunk Ape; The Jersey Devil all fall outside the Great Plains. UFO and Sasquatch reports are also less frequent coming from there as elsewhere. Also, no elected president came from the Great Plains. And no state there has an NFL team.
It may be there is a general effect of the place, interfering with much initiative. And it may be that effect that has kept so many from moving there.
rrwillsj
5 / 5 (3) Sep 26, 2018
okay jp. I had thought you were an idiot. But this comment of yours displays a talent for self-mocking satire.
jonesdave
1 / 5 (1) Sep 26, 2018
Analysis of billions of Twitter words reveals how American English develops


..........The way it always has. By not spelling things properly. :) Unlike wot uz Brits doo.
nrauhauser
not rated yet Sep 27, 2018
Colorado, Kansas, Minnesota, and Texas all have NFL teams.

Ford was born in Nebraska, Hoover in Iowa. Eisenhower and LBJ were from Texas.

The eastern half of the Great Plains doesn't have Sasquatch reports ... we believe because the cornhogs scare them away.
rrwillsj
not rated yet Sep 27, 2018
In my opinion, the dominant global language should be called the Britamerican Language. English is the structural elements. But considering how many words and ideas have been consumed from a thousand different languages? Many of which were only spoken by a few hundred or few thousand people in their time-span.

The voracious appetite of English speaking societies for group novelty, generational slang, caste status symbols, technical jargon and inner-clique argot.

Has turned a molehill into a mountain of words. I think the only thing preventing the entire edifice from collapsing has been the stabilizing influence of BBC, British cinema, music. Propagating basic cultural assumptions people are too intellectually lazy to question.

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