Tweeting with a local accent

Regional dialects are alive and well on Twitter, say researchers at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science.

Postings on Twitter reflect some well-known regionalisms, they say, such as Southerners’ ‘y’all’, andd Pittsburghers’ ‘yinz’. There are also clear regional divides in references to soda, pop and Coke.

But according to Jacob Eisenstein, regional dialects appear to be evolving within social media, with new terms appearing in different areas.

He and his team collected a week’s worth of Twitter messages in March 2010, and selected geotagged messages from Twitter users who wrote at least 20 messages. That yielded a database of 9,500 users and 380,000 messages.

In northern California, something that’s cool is described as ‘koo’ in tweets, while in southern California, it’s ‘coo’. In many cities, something is ‘sumthin’, but tweets in New York City favor ‘suttin’.

People in northern California tend to be ‘hella’ tired, New Yorkers ‘deadass’ tired and Angelenos are simply tired ‘af’ – an acronym you can probably work out for yourself.

All in all, Twitter expressions are so localized that the CMU team can predict the location of a US microblogger in the continental United States with a median error of about 300 miles.

Twitter is a particularly good way of studying regional dialects, says Eisenstein, as it’s informal and conversational – and tweets are often geotagged with GPS coordinates.

Automated analysis of Twitter message streams lets linguists watch regional dialects evolve in real time. “It will be interesting to see what happens. Will ‘suttin’ remain a word we see primarily in New York City, or will it spread?” Eisenstein asks.

The greater interconnectivity afforded by computer networks and sites such as Twitter, he says, won’t necessarily result in more homogenous language. The social circles maintained by social networks such as Twitter often are geographically focused, he points out.

Also, many people use the Internet to seek out like-minded people with similar interests, rather than expose themselves to a broader range of ideas and experiences.