Graphical representation of accent online

The study in a sentence

Language variation and change can be seen in differences in phonetic/phonological form (how something is pronounced), in lexical choices (which words are used) and in syntactic form (which grammatical forms are used). Although you might think that social media posts will only show lexical and grammatical variation, it turns out that social media users often represent the phonetic features of a dialect in written form; spelling choices can be used as a way to project linguistic identity online.

The question

This study explores the following questions:

Key concept

Sociolinguistic salience is the property of a spoken form which causes listeners to respond to the form in such a way as to indicate that it encodes information about the (presumed) social characteristics and/or geographical origins of the speaker.  Relative sociolinguistic salience can be estimated using a Social Category Association Test.

From this study, we can infer that the dialect features that social media users choose to represent in written form are those features of the dialect that are highly salient. 

"naturally occurring corpus data - which is not affected by the observer paradox - can uncover how variants can either have a stereotyped function within a speech community or be used to portray an identity" (Nini et al 2020:23)


The authors used a corpus of posts ('tweets') from Twitter,  which in some cases are 'geo-coded' i.e. accompanied by information about the geographical location of the user when they posted.  

This was a large corpus (2 billion words!) so searches for regional spelling variants were carried out automatically.  The results were plotted on maps showing the 'spread' of features across the UK. 

The answer

Spelling variants reflecting dialect features that were found in the corpus include:

Classroom activities

Lead in task

Reflecting on language use on social media and your own style-shifting

Extension task

'Translating' social media posts using orthographic representations of dialectal phonetic features.

In more detail

A longer explanation of the research study

Pre-Workshop Talk [10 mins]

Live Webinar Talk [22 mins]

CPD2021 GB graphical accent.pdf

Slides from the Live Webinar talk

Meet the author

George Bailey

George teaches modules in sociolinguistics. sociophonetics and phonetics/phonology .

Read the paper

Nini, A., Bailey, G., Guo, D., Grieve, J. (2020) The graphical representation of phonetic dialect features of the North of England on social media. In Honeybone, P. & Maguire, W. (eds), Dialect Writing and the North of England, 266-296, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. pdf