What Twitter Says to Linguists

For researchers studying the use of language in today's networked world, social media is an invaluable tool

Fred Tanneau / AFP / Getty Images

There's more in a tweet than 140 characters. Among the 500 million messages sent each day on Twitter, there's a tsunami of slang terms and textspeak. There are hashtags, emoticons and links. Many tweets contain geotags that identify where on earth a person stood when pressing send. That may sound like just a lot of noise, but for linguists making ever more sophisticated use of it all, Twitter is providing the most enormous stream of data they have ever had at their disposal.

Gone are the days when a language researcher had to interview subjects in a lab or go door to door in the hope of gaining a few insights about a limited sample of people. Academics in the U.S. and Europe are using the seven-year-old microblogging platform to put millions of examples under the microscope in an instant. "It's unprecedented," says sociolinguist Ben Zimmer, "the sheer amount of text you can look at at one time, and the number of people you can analyze at once." Hidden in tweets are insights about how we portray our identity in a few short sentences. There are clues to long-standing mysteries, like how slang spreads. And there is a new form of communication to study. If language is the archive of history, as Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, social media should get its own shelf.

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