Eisenstein and colleagues used statistical analysis techniques to work out how these urban centres influence each other – to tease out the network across which linguistic innovations like “af”, “bruh” or “-__-“catch on. The result is a map of the USA showing not just how these phrases spread between population centres, but what the direction of that influence is.
What, then, are the characteristics that make an MSA likely to spawn successful neologisms? It’s well established that Twitter has a higher rate of adoption among African Americans than other ethnic groups, and so it perhaps isn’t surprising that they now find that innovation centres, as well as being highly populated, have a higher proportion of African Americans, and that similarity of racial demographic can make two urban centres more likely to be linked in the influence network. There is a long history of adoption of African American slang (cool, dig, rip off) in mainstream US culture, so these findings agree with what we might expect.
But these are still early days, and the researchers – who hope to present their preliminary findings at a workshop on Social Network and Social Media Analysis in December organised by the Neural Information Processing Systems Foundation – anticipate that they will eventually be able to identify more nuances of influence in the data. The real point at this stage, however, is the method. Twitter and other social media offer records of language mutating in real time and space: an immense and novel resource that, while no doubt subject to its own unique quirks, can offer linguists the opportunity to explore how our words and phrases arise from acts of tacit cultural negotiation.