The funny thing about repetition

10 Aug


Bursts of emotion are one of the hardest aspects of speech to capture in written text. It is difficult to capture exuberance and immediacy when you are allowing your readers to read your utterances at their own pace. But these sudden explosions of sentiment are also often the most interesting to track and analyze, giving us insight into a writer’s emotional expressions. Repetition is one of the simplest ways that people overcome these limitations on writing, especially when it comes to expressing laughter.

How many kinds of laughter are there? Some laughter creates cooperative, positive relationships, like friends or mad scientists. Laughter can also be divisive, like when it’s at someone’s expense. You’ve heard laughter that signaled anger, anxiety, hostility. And you’ve laughed to release tension. Laughter can be part of self-deprecation, appeasement and submission. And of course it’s often part of showing sexual interest in someone. So with all these great possibilities, it’s kind of lousy that you can’t text someone a condescending chortle or a genuine belly laugh. But ha! you can.

Using a sample of 9,212, 118 tweets from Twitter users, we see that 749 people use “repeated laughter” like ha ha ha or hee hee hee. The vast majority of people are loyal to a single form of laughter: 682 of the 749 use only a single form. That is, there are about a dozen ways of laughing where the laughter is repeated 3 or more times, but individual users tend choose a single form and stick with it.

How do your fingers laugh

In terms of the exceptions, there are 67 variety-is-the-spice-of-laughter people in the sample. In general, these are folks that are using ha ha ha (the most popular kind overall) with one other form. Of the 60 people using ha ha ha and another laughter form, the most popular is he he he (30), followed by hee hee hee (18) and heh heh heh (10). For the handful of people that do multiple things but don’t use ha ha ha, the favorite pairing is hee hee hee with heh heh heh.

Let’s zoom out to look at all kinds of repeats where someone tweets the same word or emoticon three times in a row or more. Once we expand beyond laughter, we see that 8,072 different users repeated words three or more times in a row—in other words about 56% of users do this.

A very very very important g

Most of the words that get repeated three+ times are monosyllabic words (wait wait waithate hate hatework work work). The next most frequent category are sounds (na na nading ding dingda da da), followed by multisyllable words/squished phrases (really really reallyvery very very#teamfollowback #teamfollowback #teamfollowback). There aren’t that many repeated emoticons (sad faces, smiley faces…there was also one user who loves ϟ ϟ ϟ so much that she used them in hundreds of her tweets). 

There are also 671 users who use “. . . “. People who use these seem to be doing basically the same thing as ellipses (), just with extra spaces. It doesn’t seem to be the same thing as saying work work work or 🙂 🙂 🙂, so I haven’t included them in the chart above.

Most of these users have just a couple of different things they repeat. The average number of different words that tweeps repeat is 2, the median is 2.8. Besides laughter, my favorite semi-variants are yum yum yum and nom nom nom (8 users do both, 353 use just nom nom nom, 51 people use just yum yum yum). There was a vote to make nom nom nom Word of the Year for the American Dialect Society a few years ago and voting against it is one of the greatest regrets of my career in linguistics. As Maryam Bakht said, a vote for nom nom nom is a vote for joy.


– Tyler Schnoebelen (@TSchnoebelen)



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