Linguistic researchers hunt for the next 'selfie'

Twitter Research

3 March 2014

The way in which new words become popular and spread across the UK and US will be mapped out for the first time in a ground-breaking study conducted at Aston University.   

The investigation, led by Dr Jack Grieve, Lecturer in Forensic Linguistics at Aston, will use Twitter as a source of linguistic data. More than a billion tweets sent over a one-year period in both countries will be analysed to determine where new words originate from and how they become geographically dispersed as time progresses. 

Linguists have begun to increasingly exploit online data sources to better understand language variation and change, with Dr Grieve’s study representing by far the largest collection of data ever for a regional dialect study. 

Twitter was judged to be particularly useful for research into the spread of new words and expressions as many tweets display the time and location they were sent from and appear similar to spontaneous speech. 

I’m very excited to begin work on this project. No previous linguistic report has had so much data to work

Dr Grieve said: “I’m very excited to begin work on this project. No previous linguistic report has had so much data to work with so we have a great opportunity to map the emergence of new words and their lexical diffusion. 

“In addition to charting the internal movement of words in the UK and US, we hope to look at how words spread across the Atlantic, between the two countries – the first study to do so using the same methods in both nations.” 

Another of the project’s research goals is to analyse recent patterns of human migration to gain an understanding of how the movement of people impacts upon linguistic variation. 

Aston University’s partner in the investigation, the University of South Carolina, will be responsible for gathering millions of family trees online to map this modern and historical migration. The two institutions will then share their findings to see if the spread of new words lines up with migration patterns. 

Dr Grieve added: “Throughout history, migration has been a key force in shaping and transforming language. Very little research, however, has looked at how more recent population mobility has shaped dialect variation today. Hopefully, we will be able to discover new and exciting findings.” 

The project is being funded by the ‘Digging into Data Challenge’, which aims to utilise large amounts of complex data, known as ‘big data’, in humanities and social science research. The challenge seeks to show how computer-based research can be used to ask new questions and gain new insights into the world. 

Words popularised and subsequently introduced into Oxford Dictionaries Online in 2013 include selfie, twerk, vom, buzzworthy and squee. 


For further media information, please contact Jonathan Garbett, Aston University Communications on 0121 204 4552 or [email protected]