The tone of your tweets

How do we interpret tone and meaning in the perplexing world of social media language? Alumna Maria Heath’14 is on the hunt for some answers.

A fifth year Ph.D. student in linguistics at the University of Minnesota, Heath is conducting her dissertation research about how non-standard punctuation, such as capitalization in the middle of a sentence, can affect the way readers interpret the information they read online.

Heath is currently in the data analysis stage of her project. She asked 30 volunteers at the U of M to read aloud a total of almost 300 tweets with varying punctuation and styles. She is now conducting an acoustic analysis of the recordings of those readings.

“What I’m testing is if there are some patterns [in speech] which try to represent the things that have traditionally been hard to convey through writing—things like tone, differences in pitch or volume, or quality of voice or speed,” Heath says. “I’m curious if people are trying to invent ways to handle it in writing and how successful they’re being.”

Heath, a comparative literature and Spanish major at Beloit, became interested in linguistics during her Beloit years, but not in a traditional way. “The further we got into Spanish, the less we were studying things like grammar—the subjunctive and agreement—and the more we were studying historical Spanish literature,” she says. “I didn’t want to read poetry in English or Spanish. I was like, ‘man, I’m going to be such a bad English major—I don’t like literature!’”

After that realization, and with the help of professors like Lisa Haines Wright, Heath took a different approach. She began to learn Chinese to get back to the basics she enjoyed: grammar, sentence structure, intonation. She took classes in anthropology and cognitive science. After graduating, she spent a year teaching English in China. When she enrolled in graduate school for linguistics—and specifically in a class about pragmatics, or the non-verbal components of spoken language—she knew she’d found her calling.

“As an avid internet user starting to study all of these features of language and pragmatics, I started really thinking about how people have developed a whole system online,” she says. “It hasn’t been studied a lot in detail yet. I am so incredibly lucky [that] I’ve gotten the chance to do something that I am genuinely interested in and that other people like to hear me talk about.”

March 03, 2020

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