I see more and more people using the word “bae” these days, and it’s troubling me a bit. I’m all for the development of language, internet slang and neologisms – in fact, I’d go as far as to say that it makes me TOTES CICED – but there’s something about the word “bae”, that sickly-sweet contraction of the word “baby” or “babe”, that rubs me up the wrong way.
(I remember feeling the same way about “boo”.) I’m not advocating a wholesale return to “sweetheart” and “darling”, and I’m also aware that “bae” has sufficient traction in the US to be nominated for last year’s Word Of The Year by the American Dialect Society. I suppose I’m just slightly nonplussed by the way its use has gathered some pace in this country – although social media most surely bears most of the responsibility.
A number of linguists have observed the way that the internet speeds up the process of language change. From OMG to WTF, from L33T to LOLCats, linguistic contagion can propel an abbreviation such as “TMI” from an online forum into the Oxford English Dictionary in a matter of months. Our online conversations, mediated through QWERTY keyboards, end up exploring language in fascinating ways; we use wordplay to impress each other, to form cliques and to differentiate ourselves from the crowd. Thanks to this process, a group of friends of mine now use “bim” to mean a non-existent deity to whom thanks are given when no other explanation is possible, while others use the verb “to gomp”, meaning to break the rules of a game. Some neologisms end up going mainstream; neither “bim” nor “gomping” will pass into common parlance, but I love using them.
Here’s a question, though: will mass online communication result in a convergence towards a single vocabulary, where different online dialects end up subsumed into one set of words, nicely defined by the Urban Dictionary website? A group of researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, headed by Jacob Eisenstein, has been looking into precisely this – because, of course, our online communication is frequently date-stamped and geotagged, creating a handy data set to be analysed. Eisenstein and his colleagues studied 107 million messages posted on Twitter from the USA over a period of three years, from 2009 to 2012, and their findings were interesting. They found little evidence of this convergence: “ikr” (meaning “I know, right?”) was six times more popular in Detroit than anywhere else in the USA, where it gained little traction. “Suttin” (something) remained very much a New York thing. And while an abbreviation such as “af” (for as fuck) spread right across the country, the epicentre of its usage was always around the state where the study was undertaken, Georgia. They also found that pairs of cities with a similar racial mix persisted with similar neologisms. “Rather than moving towards a single unified dialect,” the study concluded, “language evolution in computer-mediated communication reproduces existing fault lines in spoken American English.”
I’m delighted that these researchers spent time “modelling spatiotemporal lexical dynamics”, not just because it reassures me that the spread of “bae” is likely to remain largely confined to America, but also because it recognises our capacity for linguistic invention. Sadly, that invention is being actively suppressed by auto-correct technology; every time I type “bae”, for example, my computer changes it to “bad”. It almost (but not quite) makes me warm towards “bae” after all.