When we speak, we routinely stretch our words to convey emotion or to strengthen their meaning.
We've probably been doing this since humans began to speak, but such informal language has rarely left a written record.
It's only since the rise of social media that we have had an opportunity to study these elongated exclamations, said scientists at the University of Vermont Burlington, who started collecting tweets back in 2008 when they first noticed that stretched words like "hahaha" and "duuuuude" were being used quite commonly.
Since then with the aid of computers, they have analyzed some 100 billion tweets generated between September 2008 and December 2016 to catalog drawn-out words and discover whether there are any patterns in the way we use them.
"We were doing something a bit silly and playful, and that's part of science. You never know what you might find," said Peter Dodds, a professor in University of Vermont's department of mathematics and statistics.
It turns out that we stretch words online for largely the same reasons as we do in real life. These colorful variations can convey feelings such as sarcasm ("suuuuuurrrrre") and sports-induced euphoria ("Gooooaaaaaaalllllllllll!").
Stretched or elongated words are also found across different languages: "kkkkkkkk" indicates laughter in Brazilian Portuguese while "wkwkwkwkwkwk" does in Indonesian, the researchers said.
They looked at words that had letters that repeated 15 times or more in a row or pairs of letters that repeated 30 times — allowing them to capture "gooooaaaalllll" as well as "hahahaha." The results were published Wednesday in the journal PLOS One.
The authors said their work showed how everyday linguistic patterns differed from formal written language and could pave the way for elongated words to be included in dictionaries.
They found that words that people tend to stretch aren't just a "big disorganized mess." In fact they have a regular distribution in terms of how much a word stretches and which part of the word is stretched.
For example, "ha" has a high degree of balance with the "h" and the "a" repeated just about equally. While "goal" as a whole word is stretchy, it's less balanced, with the "g" not stretched as much and the "o" repeated more than any other letter in the word.
And the amount of stretch (that is the number of times each letter is repeated) is the same for "g" and "o" and "a" and "l" in a 70-character version of "goal"as what you'd see in a 140-character version.
While the study found that it was often the "articulable" parts of words that get stretched a lot, mimicking speech, there was also repeating of letters that couldn't be articulated — such as the final "p" in "pleeeeaaasee hhhheeeellllpppp."
The researchers suggested that this could be because stretchable words stand out more online, becoming a "visual cue." For example, the authors said they saw tweets where the author was pleading for a single celebrity to follow back in a message where every single letter was stretched.
The same element of display can be seen with emojis, Dodds said — think 100 crying-laughing emojis — but they weren't part of the study.
"They are a whole different set of stretchable animals."