African-Americans and social media
African-Americans using social media exert a powerful influence on slang, a recent study finds. (Image: Fotolia)

New research conducted by scholars at the Georgia Institute of Technology shows that African-American cities are the source of much modern slang. Leading a team of colleagues, Jacob Eisenstein analyzed Twitter data collected between December 2009 and May 2011 in order to track the origin and proliferation of new terms such as “bruh” — an evolution of “bro” — and the acronym “ctfu.” This abbreviation for “cracking the f*** up,” for example, was found to have originated in Cleveland, Ohio before initially spreading to Pennsylvania, data has shown.

By delving into the nearly 40 million tweets collected, Eisenstein has demonstrated that “big African American populations tend to lead the way in linguistic innovation,” according to New Scientist magazine. The researchers cannot yet explain why this influence flows in this manner, or which black locales are the most influential.

Eisenstein and his team continue to search for answers to these questions using a method that contrasts tweets sent by 400,000 subjects with location data voluntarily provided by users’ cell phones.

“After collecting the data, the team built a mathematical model that captures the large-scale flow of new words between cities,” reports the Daily Mail. “The model revealed that cities with big African American populations tend to lead the way in linguistic innovation.”

The higher rate of adoption of Twitter among African-Americans could be one reason for the higher use of neologisms, or newly coined terms, among these communities. Another is the well-documented occurrence of urban slang filtering into mainstream.

“There is a long history of adoption of African American slang (cooldigrip off) in mainstream US culture, so these findings agree with what we might expect,” states Philip Ball, in his piece for BBC Future on the study. Today, the Internet might be the main instrument of neologism proliferation rather than direct human contact.

Eisenstein and his team intend to elaborate on these initial conclusions by determining why certain words become trendy while others fail to spread, and exactly how social media is altering the evolution of English. They hope to present their current findings at  a workshop on Social Network and Social Media Analysis, which will be presented by the Neural Information Processing Systems Foundation in December.

Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter at @lexisb.