Linguistics grad uses social media in dialect research

When Martha Austen ’13 used to say she was fixin’ to eat supper, she wondered why her Cornell friends would raise their eyebrows a bit in her direction.

Now, she’s made the study of sociophonetics — the study of sound and how speech varies based on different social factors — her focus as a graduate student at Ohio State University.

And she’s using Twitter as a way to gain access to a mountain of data on people’s speech and dialects.

Austen, a linguistics and Spanish double major at Cornell, became fascinated by linguistics after she took an intro class freshman year and became interested in dialects and accents.

“I’m originally from Tennessee, so coming to Cornell I discovered all of these southern patterns to the way I talk,” she said. “I grew up thinking ‘fixin’ to eat supper’ was totally normal English.”

Sociophonetic researchers use technology and other methods to look at speech signals and determine differences that can’t even be heard.

The research can help scientists understand how language changes over time, she said.

“If we can see how people are altering the language and how it is spreading, then we can understand how we get from one language to a different one,” she said, the same way over history that Latin speakers morphed the language into French and Portugese.

“Normally, it happens with subtle changes over time,” she said. “But if you get a lot of speakers of one language who suddenly have to learn a new language, like the African slaves who had to learn French when they were taken to Haiti and not learning it perfectly, then you create a new language like Haitian Creole.”

To gather data on regional dialect variations, Austen is using Twitter, downloading tweets that are marked by location and contain certain words that she’s studying.

She’s found that although she expected southerners to more likely use “fixin’ to,” she actually found most southerners included a “g” on the end of “fixin,” but she found more people omit the g all across the country when they’re going for a mock southern tone.

Austen said she’s picking up computer programming classes to help with her research and hopes to become a professor so she can continue to teach and do research into linguistics.










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Martha Austen ’13