Oxford Lexicographers Chart the Effects of Twitter

by Staff

Lexicographers at Oxford University Press (OUP) began 2009 by adding Twitter to the host of sources they monitor in charting the evolution of the English language. Between January and April, OUP added 1.5 million public “tweets” to its Oxford English Corpus, a vast electronic database that collects examples of words in context. Among the findings: Language use on Twitter tends to focus on the self and the present, while the social networking service’s insistence on brevity gives rise to some creative solutions.

The addition of Twitter is an acknowledgement of its status as “a popular and dynamic form of communication,” said Judy Pearsall, OUP’s senior publishing manager for English dictionaries, in a press release. “To get a full picture of the English language, compilers of current dictionaries need to incorporate all forms of communication into their research.”

Much of what emerges from OUP’s data is unlikely to surprise those already familiar with Twitter. Verbs, for instance, were found to be far more prevalent in the gerund form (i.e., participles ending in “-ing”), reflecting the fact that users typically tweet about their current activities. “Watching,” “trying,” “listening,” “reading,” and “eating” were all among the top one hundred most commonly employed first words, while the first-person pronoun “I” took the number one spot (as compared with number ten in general usage). Twitter’s suitability for reporting on the moment may also help explain the surge in what researchers term “Obamalogisms” during January and February. In addition to the well known “Obamamania,” such coinages now include “Obamanomics,” “Obamafication,” and “Obamaberry,” which the commander in chief presumably uses to send “Obamatweets.”   

Space-saving neologisms aside, the OUP study found the most common means of working within Twitter’s 140-character limit to be simple contraction and abbreviation. Terms such as “RT” (for “retweet”), “LOL” (“laughing out loud”), “u” (“you”) and “ur” (“your” or “you’re”) placed among the top five hundred most frequently used words. The results also reveal Twitter as a decidedly informal medium: Exclamations (“wow” and “yay”) are overrepresented when compared with general usage, while a certain four-letter fricative ranks just seven slots below the ubiquitous “OMG” (“Oh my god”).  

According to OUP, the study of new media permits crucial lexicographic insights into how language is actually used. “We’ll be continuing to monitor Twitter,” said Pearsall, “as well as any other significant forms of new communication methods, alongside our established program of data-collecting into the future.”