According to a paper delivered at the annual meeting of the American Dialect Society in January by Brice Russ, a graduate student at Ohio State University, the 200 million or so messages posted each day in the supposedly placeless world of Twitter may end up being a rich source of information about regional difference.
To demonstrate the validity of Twitter-based research, Mr. Russ searched through some 400,000 Twitter posts coming from identifiable locations and zeroed in on three different linguistic variables, starting with the regional distribution of “soda” vs. “pop” or “Coke,” something that has been well-studied by scholars and amateurs alike. Next, he tracked the use of “hella,” an intensifier (as in “hella boring”) that is associated with Northern California but whose regional distribution has only been examined anecdotally. Finally, he looked at the well-documented syntactic construction “needs X-ed” (as in“the car needs washed”), which is common in the Midwest and especially around Pittsburgh.
Mr. Russ’s results for carbonated beverages, plotted onto a Google map, track closely with previous research, with “pop” predominant from the Midwest to the Pacific Northwest, “Coke” predominant in the South and “soda” ruling the Northeast and Southwest while also cropping up elsewhere. But his map for “hella” shows the word leap-frogging up the West Coast to Seattle (and, more puzzlingly, popping up in St. Louis and Kansas City). “People may be moving up the coast, bringing it with them,” he said, adding that he was utterly confounded by the midwestern “hella” hotspots.
As for the “needs X-ed” construction, Mr. Russ detected hints of a southward drift since it was studied in the mid-1990s, though he was cautious about drawing firm conclusions. “There could have been diffusion southward,” he said. “Or I may have just caught something that the previous research missed.”
Look, Megan Rascal! Fun with linguistics!