I was recently sent a tweet, where the author wrote <brah> as a term of address, and I was asked, more or less, "what's going on here?"
Since this actually comes up surprisingly often, I decided to take a closer look.
My friend Bri told me, on multiple occasions that she has been chastised by white people for saying or writing "bruh," as it's ostensibly "a lazy version of bro," where bro is a truncation of brother. I don't think I'm blowin' up anybody's spot when I say that it turns out people really, truly feel this way:
The thing about this is that, as I was explaining to the undergrads in Mark Liberman's Intro to Linguistics class, often the way we evaluate language is about social factors and not anything inherent to the language itself. In this instance, it would be difficult to claim, scientifically, that one or the other form is lazy: all three have the same number of segments, and the first two are the same. The only difference is the vowel: br[ʌ], br[ɛ], br[a], br[o], with the vowels in brother, bed, cot, and flow, respectively.
So, from a speech production perspective, none is more or less difficult than any of the others.
What's happening then?
For starters, there's social perception of who says what. Each of these ways of addressing someone has its own indexical field, following Penny Eckert's use. To simplify, this means that you don't just hear and parse the word, but it evokes a whole range of associated concepts related to social identity.
My intuition is that bro is taken as the de facto 'standard' way of saying it, and that the other three index identity. bruh is stereotypically black, and conforms to a common way of truncating words in African American English (which I discuss briefly here; cf. luh 'love', belee 'believe', cuh 'cousin', etc.)
Breh and brah are suggestive of the California Vowel Shift, but this doesn't mean that people who use it are from California. It may be that people are trying to build an identity evocative of something (say, a laid-back surfer) without being that thing.
In order to further investigate, I pulled a bunch of tweets. It turns out, all the variants are used everywhere. Unsurprisingly, bro is the most common:
Bruh is the next most common, but occurs at one fifth the rate of bro (sort of like how black people in the US occur at 1/10 to 1/5 the rate of white people. Hmmmm.):
Bringing up the rear are breh, and brah:
I decided to poke around a little bit more, so I joined all of the above tweets to a Census 2010 spatial data frame, and ran a few models. What I found was basically that the best predictor for all varieties was population (that is, people tweet where people are) but that things like total black population or percent black population did not seem to have a terribly strong effect on which variant was used. Granted, it was a very cursory attempt, and if I were really digging into these data I would be doing a lot more to verify this, but preliminarily, it seems like everyone's using everything.
What is particularly interesting to me is this person's assertion that she uses different forms to address different kinds of people:
I'm particularly interested in hearing people's thoughts on this. If you don't stigmatize any of the forms, are they in free variation, or do you use different forms for different people? Leave a comment below, or tweet at me!
©Taylor Jones 2015
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