A Strange Theory About Which Countries Twitter Will Be More Popular In

Posted: Dec 22 2013, 8:01am CST | by


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You could, according to your preference, describe this as a half formed thought that might lead to something interesting or an entirely half-baked thought that isn’t going to go anywhere. But I’m wondering whether there might be a connection between language itself and where Twitter is either popular right now or where it will become so. For languages aren’t just different from each other (D’Oh!) but they form new words and complex words in very different manners. And some of those languages might therefore be better suited to Twitter’s character limit and others less so.

This is prompted by this rather witty tweet:

Why do Germans shun Twitter? http://t.co/pkjzB5UQuk // Because of words like Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz

— Amni Rusli (@AmniRusli) December 20, 2013

Proper linguists should probably look away now as I butcher the subject with simplifications but languages can be divided into those that agglutinative and those that are fusional. Or as I would explain it, those which create new words to explain new things by simply piling together all of the old words that are needed to describe this new thing. Those are the agglutinative languages and the fusional ones are the ones where new thing, great, we’ll invent a new word. Yes, OK, the linguists are wincing in pain at this point but it is precisely this aspect of certain languages which I think might matter with respect to Twitter.

To give an example from my half remembered Russian. Money is dengi, cash money is nalichimi, back pocket (ie, in English, “brown envelope money”) is babki. And yes, apologies as I’ve no doubt butchered those: but my point is that in Russian when you’ve a variance on an idea as often as not you end up with an entirely different word to describe that variant. Whereas in German, say (or Turkish, which I am told is very much the same) you would have the variation described by stringing together all of the words that describe that variant. Money would be “money”, cash money would be “cashmoney” and untaxed back pocket money would be “untaxedbackpocketmoney”. Umm, in German of course.

Please note that the actual examples that I’m using here, however wrong they are, make no difference to the argument itself.

Some languages end up with very long words as a result of how they coin descriptions of things. Others end up inventing new and shorter words for those same new things. And yes, all languages exist on a spectrum on this matter, no one language entirely and purely does one of the other.

But German does do it more than most and Germans do seem to tweet less than most other similarly rich countries. So is this, purely the form of the language itself, a guide to how popular Twitter will be in certain countries?

I’m not sure how one would go about testing this. I’m sure the linguists can give us a rough list of languages, from less agglutinative to more. And there are a number of papers looking at Twitter’s data on location and language used. None of the ones I’ve seen are looking at exactly this question: but we wouldn’t be able to decide purely based upon Twitter’s information anyway. We’d also need to consider the popularity of other character limited services in those other countries as well. For example, the popularity of Sina Weibo is clearly going to change Twitter’s popularity in China (even if censorship doesn’t do that first).

So really the question changes a bit to whether character limited microblogging is going to be more popular in some languages than in others purely as a result of the nature of that very language.

No, I don’t know either and it is indeed a half formed thought for a Sunday afternoon. But if you know of anyone who has looked at this problem please do point us all to that research. After all, you readers will know more collectively on absolutely any and every subject than one lone writer will.

Source: Forbes

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