The Social Dynamics of Language Change in Online Networks
Language change is a complex social phenomenon, revealing pathways of communication and sociocultural influence. But, while language change has long been a topic of study in sociolinguistics, traditional linguistic research methods rely on circumstantial evidence, estimating the direction of change from differences between older and younger speakers. In this paper, we use a data set of several million Twitter users to track language changes in progress. First, we show that language change can be viewed as a form of social influence: we observe complex contagion for phonetic spellings and “netspeak” abbreviations (e.g., lol), but not for older dialect markers from spoken language. Next, we test whether specific types of social network connections are more influential than others, using a parametric Hawkes process model. We find that tie strength plays an important role: densely embedded social ties are significantly better conduits of linguistic influence. Geographic locality appears to play a more limited role: we find relatively little evidence to support the hypothesis that individuals are more influenced by geographically local social ties, even in their usage of geographical dialect markers.