The Porch Light’s On, But Nobody’s Home

Would you say sneakers or tennis shoes? Hoagie or hero? Dust bunny or house moss? The differences in regional speech are being noted on Twitter.

Brice Russ, a graduate student at Ohio State University, presented a study at the American Dialect Society’s annual meeting in January demonstrating how Twitter can be used as a valuable and abundant source for linguistic research. With more than 200 million posts each day, the site has allowed researchers map out regional dialect.

Russ analyzed nearly 400,000 Twitter posts to study three different linguistic variables. He started by mapping the regional distribution of “Coke,” “pop” and “soda” based on 2,952 tweets from 1,118 identifiable locations. As has been documented in the past, “Coke” predominantly came from Southern tweets, “pop” from the Midwest and Pacific Northwest and “soda” from the Northeast and Southwest.

He also analyzed the migration of “hella,” meaning “very” as in “hella cool.” The phrase originated in California, but has since made its way to the Midwest. The Midwest and Pittsburgh-area changes the syntactical construction to “needs X-ed” as in “the sink needs fixed.” This phrase seems to have moved toward the South since the mid-1990s.

“I really think that the availability of data like Twitter is a real game-changer for how people study language,” said Jacob Eisenstein, one of the researchers on the CMU team. “What surprised us was that, in addition to the sorts of words and names that we expected to see, there was a whole other class of words that seemed to have a very strong geographical affinity that we had never known about before.”

Though Twitter may enable large-scale, worldwide studies and cut out fieldwork typically demanded of linguistic scholars, it can also limit studies to a generally younger, more urban base of users and most likely won’t replace face-to-face interview.

“There’s a lot of richness you can get by doing a personal interview in terms of finding out someone’s life story, and exactly how their location effects the way that they speak,” David Crystal, language expert and honorary professor of Linguistics at Bangor University, told the BBC.

Great. Now we can be stereotyped more quickly and easily. I suspect they want that face-to-face interview so that, in the case of Southerners, they can count our teeth, or the lack thereof. I’m serious as a heart attack. Shut the back door!

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16 thoughts on “The Porch Light’s On, But Nobody’s Home

  1. Gayle Mills

    Totally awesome, dude, uh, I mean, like dudette.

    Where did the phrase “went missing” come from? My keys “went missing”? How do inanimate objects go anywhere? Aren’t they misplaced or lost by humans?

    My ex-MIL says “hope” for “help.” I have never understood how hoping someone helped them. Go figure. Unless, the thing you need help with is locating something that went missing. In which case, hoping is probably as good as helping.

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    1. Robin Helm

      I love it when a writer says a person’s eyebrows arched or their brow furrowed. Those things don’t happen on their own, either. I have a mental image of her eyebrow having a tiny brain of its own.

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  2. LucyParker

    “Fixing to…” that’s a biggie here in Okieland. “Here in?” shouldn’t that just be “in Okieland?” I say “by accident,” my son says “on accident.” I don’t know how any of this comes about, why I want a pop when I’m in Chicago and a Coke when I’m home. Go ahead, stereotype me. You’ll find out I only have one chopstick in the rice.

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    1. Robin Helm

      There are some people around here who say “plan on” instead of “plan to” and pitchter for picture. Hubby’s Michigan family says “pap” for “pop.” When I’m up there, I have “pap.” Down here, I have a drink – that means non-alcoholic in my circles.

      Honey, I’m sure that you’re finer than a new set of snow tires!

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  3. Susan Kaye

    Then you have people like me who refuse to use some words they grew up with. “Pop” is what I grew up calling soda. I call it “soda” and so do my kids and husband. We live in Oregon.

    I wonder how helpful it is to use all this for tracking changes IN language when it is likely one of the greatest change agents OF language.

    Oh, why do easterners say, “standing ON line”? Just sounds weird. Unless, of course, there is a line painted on the floor.

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  4. Gayle Mills

    In SC, we stand IN line. More often than I would like to admit, state troopers have the inebriated walking A line, or attempting to. I just try to stay BETWEEN the lines. It seems to be the safest way to travel.

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  5. Sophia Rose

    This man would have a field day with my family. We moved all over the country and I have the confused colloqs to prove it.

    I love these dialect discussions particularly with my British friend mocking any and all Yank speech listening in.

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  6. Robin Helm

    When mission groups go out from our church, they are instructed to use no hand gestures at all, and to try to refrain from using colloquial expressions. “Shag” means a dance in South Carolina, but something quite different in Australia. Our hand sign for “okay” is a signal for a sexual act overseas.

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  7. Annette Wristen

    At my house we have running shoes, often shortened to runners, sub sandwiches, and cola, orange crush, sprite or root beer. I bought beds with drawers under them so I would never have to worry about wild field animals under my bed. The downside is that I will never find a Darcy hiding under my bed either.
    A few years ago I kept a count of the number of times I heard the expression “eh” in every day speech, and what nationality the person was. My total was very low, but every instance of the sound came from an American depicting their perception of Canadians.
    I interact with a much classier crowd now. Shout out to all my JAFF friends.

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  8. Robin Helm

    Hi, Annette! My husband counts the number of times people say “you know.” It drives him crazy (though that might me just a short walk, not a drive).

    Love your reference to “Chocolate Curls and Dragons.” I’m looking forward to the time when it’s published.

    Amen, Gayle!

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Why yes, we DO want a piece of your mind. ;-)

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