When a group of young sociolinguists started an annual conference called New Ways of Analyzing Variation four decades ago, they focused on variation of the spoken kind, looking at how speech patterns relate to group identity. But at the 41st gathering of NWAV a week ago, at Indiana University Bloomington, papers on traditional ways of speaking shared the limelight with something the founders couldn’t have predicted: the 21st-century terrain of computer-mediated language.
Twitter, in particular, merited a whole panel, with papers on the medium’s changing slang (are your Twitter followers “tweeps,” “tweeple,” or “tweeties”?) and on the way that the Spanish verb “gustar” (meaning “to like”) gets used in different parts of the Spanish-speaking Twittersphere. A third paper crunched through millions of tweets to detect gender differences in language use, not just in dictionary words but in such electronic shorthand as “xoxo” (for hugs and kisses) and emoticons.