For the March issue of The Atlantic, I spoke with linguists about this thingggg we're doing with words — a growing habit in which otherwise reasonable people cavalierly add extra letters to the words in their texts, emails, tweets, and so forth — to find out why. One of the experts I met while working on that piece was Tyler Schnoebelen, a recent PhD from Stanford who wrote his dissertation on emotion in language and blogs about newsworthy word-findings at Corpus Linguistics. He's been focusing lately on the phenomenon of word lengthening or "expressive lengthening" on Twitter. (He's also one of the researchers behind a recent study about how men and women tweet.) For his dissertation, he analyzed data consisting of 3,775,174 tweets from 102,304 different English-speaking authors, tweeted in the six months between January to June of 2011 in the U.S. He was looking at the way people used emoticons in their tweets, but in that exploration he found something else: Along with those emoticons, people were adding letters to their words, too. Or toooooo. In the interest of learning more about why word lengthening exists, even on an inherently character-limited social media platform like Twitter, I turned to him with a few questions.
What words get lengthened the most on Twitter, and why?
The main ones are the expressive things you don't think of as words — mmmm, oh, ah, aw. You can put as many letters on those as you want. That gets extended to words like hey, no, yes, and the letters that get extended are usually the ones you can hold onto, vowels or ns or ses. Then it gets even crazier — OMgggg or LMAOoo or LOLlll, though you're not actually saying "laughing my ass off off off" or "laugh out loud loud loud loud." From that there's extending real words you can't pronounce, shittttt or happppppy or amazinggggg. You start with these expressions that don't have a proper spelling, things no one tells you how to write, and you add and go beyond that to make words more affective and expressive.
You wrote a post about a friend who'd seen the word dumb tweeted as DUMBBB, which inspired you to take a look at which specific letters were added most frequently and why. Ooo was a big winner. Why do you think people pick the particular letters they do?
People love the o! I think it's something about rounding your lips; it's iconic of getting your mouth around something. Your lips, pursing forward, going out into the world ... there's something there.
What about the more unusual added letters, like b or g?
I think the gs are the most fun. People who use them are really taking this idea that you can extend things and going crazy with it. You can't pronounce a word like Omgggg, but it's been lifted away from the speech itself. In real speech, which is normally face to face, there are so many different ways to communicate — I'm not just happy but really happy — but we don't have that in a tweet or text or email. Adding letters is a version of a big intonation, raised eyebrows.
In terms of voicing, vowels make sense to lengthen because when we're speaking that's what we're doing. Sometimes there are consonants, s or n, we do that in speech, too. But you don't pronounce the b in dumb in English, so what does adding that letter mean? The end is a nice attractive spot, maybe, that gets across that you're doing something. Clearly when people are doing this they're being playful.
If you look at these words, a lot of them are from the expressive class. You're already expressing some emotional state with them — aw — or you're using them for augmentative purposes, like so and lots of affirmatives and negations: yeahhh, nooo, yesssss. But I think it's telling that some of the other more frequent words that get extra letters are unpronounceable. People are trying to give some flavor to the communication. These additions really help get the point across and share intonation. That's part of it: You can hear them in your ear.
Are specific usages unique to different people or subsets of Twitter?
People using LMFAOOO tend to talk about Chris Brown and Nicki Minaj; there's a hip-hop feel to that. People who write knowww with extra ws or youuu with extra us also use the word mum, they spell thankyou as one word, and they use xoxoxo.
I'm a fond of adding extra ooos like most poeple. I don't think I do it excessively. I tend to make my hms a single.
There's also a kind of a social meme-ing to these things. I'm tempted to use v. for very but I can't help but associate that with Bridget Jones, who does that in her diary, and I have a problem with someone reading me as Bridget Jones. I tentatively aded a v. in a tweet the other day. I rearranged and deleted and put it back several times. Other people may not have a reference like this.
It makes you wonder how long the "curse of Bridget Jones" will hold. Speaking of things evolving and changing, this kind of behavior tends to inspire rants about how proper language and grammar is dying. What do you think about that?
As far as I understand, [the ranters] are full of it. This represents changing conventions; we're not becoming impaired. We all have cues, while we're talking on the phone, for instance, and we'd have even more if we were face to face. What we're usually doing is negotiating what we know about a particular person and what we know about people in general. It has to do with expectations, my experience with you and everybody else. We generally accommodate each other. Over the course of a conversation, our vowels become more alike. Any of these things can be going on below our level of awareness, or they can come up to our level of awareness. We can tweak them, we can notice them.
They very much do exist together, emoticons and adding letters. It's easy to call these habits nonstandard, but whether they're really nonstandard ...10 percent of tweets use emoticons. As for the percent of letters added to words, I don't know. They're clearly very frequent, especially the expressive sound ones. Emoticons and added letters are not warring with each other; in fact, they go together very well. It's speculation, but my guess is, if you're fine with lengthening, you're probably fine adding emoticons.
What other things do people do on Twitter in order to convey emotion?
Other types of punctuation. You can underline, you can bold, you can do all caps. People do all caps all the time. Putting asterisks around words has existed for a long time, and tends to be used on the internet with verbs indicating what you are doing at the moment (*smiles*). Or you see underscore, word, underscore. Those punctuation techniques will give you a sense that this is important, but not a sense of how it's said. The all-caps gives you a sense of how it's said, but many people hear or read it as shouting, and you don't always mean to do that. The awwwww (expressing condolences) is not something you shout. You can't shout mmmm.
Mmmmm. Do you see an end to the "trend" of adding letters?
Once we get to the point of digesting audio tweets, we won't need to add letters.