Bro Vs Bruh: A Sandy Spring sociolinguistic study

Bro Vs Bruh: A Sandy Spring sociolinguistic study

Sociolinguistics Class, Guest Writers

In a unit on language variation and change in Brian Brubaker’s Sociolinguistics course, a thought-provoking question was posed as to whether the SSFS community could ever have its own particular way of speaking. Students were tasked to become dialectologists to research current speech patterns in our community. As a class, they chose to examine the words ‘bro’ and ‘bruh,’ particularly to clarify whether they have the same meaning and usage. As Seamus Blake writes, “Language change is inevitable. For that reason linguists are always studying how words are used, and how they change. This study could, in theory, provide real information for language change and evolution and separating of the words ‘bro’ and ‘bruh.’”

A review of traditional dictionary definitions indicates little difference between these terms. For example, Merriam-Webster provides separate entries for each word and defines ‘bro’ as “1) informal [for] brother; 2a) a male friend, 2b) used as a friendly way of addressing a man or boy.” The same phrases are in the definition for ‘bruh,’ though marked as ‘African American English,’ where the usage originated. also gives a separate entry for each word, and also has very similar definitions: ‘bro’ is “a brother; a guy or fellow: used as a term of address” ( “The Definition of Bro”), while bruh is “an informal term for a male friend often used as a form of address” (“The Definition of Bruh”). This source also discusses the word’s origin in African American English in the South, as it has appeared in written form (along with ‘brer’) since the 1890s. Note that in all of these cases, ‘bro’ and ‘bruh’ are both described as terms of address, a category which also includes honoraries such as Ms., Mrs., Mr. or other titles, terms of endearment such as ‘honey,’ ‘dear,’ and ‘sis,’ and pronouns.

There are indications, however, that recently the function of these words is diverging. Despite the overlap in dictionary definitions, ‘bruh’ may have greater use as an interjection. These are words or phrases that express a sudden burst of emotion, such as ‘hey’, ‘oops’, ‘aw’, ‘yay,’ or ‘holy smokes.’ “Spreading in the 2010s, bruh has been used […] to react to something a fellow guy finds amazing, surprising, or exciting as well as its opposite—something exasperating, embarrassing, or questionable in some way” (Kelly). Less traditional dictionaries also indicate this emerging distinction between ‘bro’ and ‘bruh.’ For example, the highest-rated entry for ‘bro’ in Urban Dictionary, with 1614 up-votes, is “The teller of cool stories; the coolest storyteller: “Cool story, bro.” Most other prominent entries follow in the same line, and implies ‘bro’ is used only as an address term. In contrast, the top-ranked definition for ‘Bruh’ (with 16977 votes in favor) defines it as “The best answer to literally anything: [example 1] Joe: my mom died yesterday, John: bruuhh; [example 2] Joe: Yo my mom just won million dollars, John: bRuHhh; [example 3]  Joe: my mom made dinner for us, John: bruh” ( “Urban Dictionary: Bruh”). This, with many other prominent Urban Dictionary entries for ‘bruh’, uses the word as an interjection, expressing varying forms of shock. One other indicator that ‘bruh’ is more an interjection than address term is indicated by performing a search for gifs representing these terms. A query on ‘bruh’ in returns images predominately showing individuals experiencing exasperation, dismay, or confusion, such as what might be expressed verbally through an interjection. A similar search for ‘bro’ shows primarily male-to-male expressions of friendship, shared exuberance, or direct use as an address term (eg ‘come at me, bro’).   


In the spirit of ‘citizen science’, the Sociolinguistics class conducted research to gauge the SSFS community’s understanding and practices in the usage and meanings of these words. As Njandee Murangi writes, “Our research could have implications for the variation of these two words. Are they variables of the same variant? Or are they two separate variants by themselves? If they are variables, what are the constraints, are they in free variation?” Ryan McCarthy also states that “It can also provide insight into how the meaning of terms change in our community”

As mentioned earlier, our research was prompted by the question of whether there could ever be a distinct Sandy Spring Friends School dialect. One aspect through which dialects can be differentiated is through word choice and/or meaning, for example ‘soda’ versus ‘pop’ versus ‘coke’ (a great controversy), or semantic differences, such as the level of formality in the terms ‘dinner’ and ‘supper.’ This latter feature gave focus to our research question: “How do the words ‘bro’ and ‘bruh’ differ in definition and function at SSFS?” 

In order to answer this question, the class conducted a series of interviews about the usage of these terms among members of the SSFS Upper School. Interviewers used a chain-referral method of sampling to interview male and female students ranging from 9th to 12th grade, as well as male and female faculty members (Table 1). The research questions are available to view at this link

*Notes: Time constraints and the randomness of the subjects interviewed resulted in fewer female interviewees than male interviewees. The data might not be representative given the limited number of chosen samples.


Age & Gender Group of Respondents
Total Students n=19 M n=11
F n=8
9th n=4 M n=2
F n=2
10th n=3 M n=3
F n=0
11th n=4 M n=2
F n=2
12th n=8 M n=4
F n=4
Adult n=8 M n=6
F n=2
Table 1


Our hypotheses were as follows:

1: The meaning and usage of BRO and BRUH are NOT fully interchangeable.
        A: BRO is more an address term
        B: BRUH is more an interjection with a negative response
2: Both BRO and BRUH are reported to be used mainly by males.
3: Both BRO and BRUH are reported to be used mainly by younger people (students).


Hypothesis 1: Meaning and Usage.

The data supports our first hypothesis, indicating that Bro and Bruh are not fully interchangeable. When we tallied up the answers for the question “What slang words are most common these days?” the words Bruh and Bro came up the most. Bruh was mentioned 8 times while Bro was mentioned 6. The words were mentioned through spontaneous reference, with no prompting, which further illustrates the cultural salience of these terms. 

When asked “To what extent are ‘bro’ and ‘bruh’ different in meaning?” respondents were asked to rank the meaning on a five point scale, with one being very different and five being very much the same. As shown in Table 2, the numerical ranking fell around 3 points, a solidly middle score demonstrating that while the words cannot be considered the same, there is some overlap. On average, female students considered the terms more distinct, with an average of 2.29, when compared to male students, with an average of 3.10. Additionally, students as a whole considered the terms to be more distinct as compared to faculty members.  


Table 2

BRO-BRUH Meaning/Usage Perceptions
(1= Very different; 5= Very much the same)
Students 2.76 n=19
Male 3.10 n=11
Female 2.29 n=8
Adults 3.14 n=8
Male 4.00 n=6
Female 1.00 n=2

As a follow-up to this question, participants were asked “How would you describe the meaning of Bro/Bruh?” While there were a lot of differing responses, there was a common sentiment that the two terms are not interchangeable. Bro was largely described as an address term, often short for brother, from both faculty and students across both genders. A 9th grade respondent described Bro as “Bro is short for brother, so I use it to my friends” and a faculty respondent also described it as an “affectionate term for someone you see as a brother.” In contrast, Bruh was described as more of a reaction term with an often negative connotation, such as a senior who stated ‘bruh’ is “an exclamation of frustration.” These statements were then analyzed, and each speaker was rated by the degree to which their examples tended toward usage as address term or interjection. This is presented in Table 3, and shows a clear tendency for participants to give examples of ‘bro’ as address terms and ‘bruh’ as interjections.


Table 3

Bro/Bruh Interjection vs Address Term Rating from given examples

(1= Interjection; 3= mix/both; 5= Address Term)

4.57 n= 22 2.14 n= 28


Hypothesis 2: Gender Divide

Our second hypothesis stated that Bro and Bruh were used predominantly by male students- -hough the data support the null hypothesis. Interviewees were asked to both self-report their own usage on a one to five scale (Table 3) and who they believed to use the terms more often (Table 4). According to Table 4, almost all the groups interviewed, excluding female teachers, believed that both Bro and Bruh were used by mostly males with ratings fluctuating around 2. However, looking at self-reported numerical values in Table 3, self-reported usages for students were about even for both males and females. This data shows that while there is a common perception that males use Bro and Bruh the most, the actual usage for women is about the same as men across both students and faculty. A Chi-square analysis, through efforts contributed by Statistics teachers Leslie McDonald and Cory Cloud, indicated “no significant difference in self-reported usage of Bro and Bruh for males and females” (McDonald & Cloud).      

BRO & BRUH: Self-Reported Usage
(1= Never; 5= Several times a day)
Population BRO BRUH #
Students 3.18 3.53 n=19
Male 3.30 3.70 n=11
Female 3.00 3.29 n=8
Adults 2.14 1.14 n=8
Male 2.00 1.25 n=6
Female 2.00 1.00 n=2


BRO & BRUH: Gender Use Perceptions
(1 = only male ; 3 = no difference ; 5 = only female)
Population BRO BRUH #
Students 2.19 2.29 n=19
Male 2.00 2.10 n=11
Female 2.43 2.57 n=8
Adults 2.29 2.29 n=8
Male 2.50 2.50 n=6
Female 3.00 3.00 n=2

Hypothesis 3: Age Differences

Our final hypothesis stated that younger people were more likely to use Bruh and Bro as compared to older people. This age difference was exemplified by the differences in both perception (Table 5) and actual usage (Table 3). As stated previously, faculty members reported using Bro and Bruh significantly less than students. The statistical analysis also indicated “significant difference in self reported usage by teens and adults” [p>.01] (McDonald & Cloud). However, there was an interesting divide in who students and faculty thought used both terms among upperclassmen and lower classmen. When asked to rank from one to five which grades Bro and Bruh used the most, students tended to lean towards underclassmen and faculty towards upperclassmen. This was most evident as students on average rated both Bro and Bruh under three, with 2.44 and 2.76 respectively, which means that they believed underclassmen to use these terms slightly more. However among faculty, there was a split in the words themselves as Bro was rated on average at 3.33 and Bruh at 2.29, meaning faculty, especially male teachers,believed upperclassmen to use Bro more and lowerclassmen to use Bruh more.

BRO – Age Use Perceptions
(1 = 9th&10th only; 3 = no difference; 5 = 11th&12 only)
Population BRO BRUH #
Students 2.44 2.76 n=19
Male 2.67 2.90 n=11
Female 2.14 2.57 n=8
Adults 3.33 2.29 n=8
Male 4.00 2.25 n=6
Female 2.00 2.00 n=2


Though slang terms often have a short shelf life, disappearing like passing fads, some words may take root and enter the lexicon in broader society. The analysis here, however, indicates some cultural salience of Bro and Bruh, indicated by existing dictionary definitions, ease of reference by participants, and usage across gender categories. Our data indicate that ‘bro’ is not used exclusively by male students, but is common across both age and gender groups. ‘bruh,’ on the other hand, is almost exclusively used by students. If slang is a marker of in-group membership (Wolfram & Schilling), then ‘bruh’ is clearly a stronger symbol of student identity than the word ‘bro’. Participants’ spontaneous examples of ‘bro’ and ‘bruh’ also indicate a clear distinction between ‘bro’ as an address term and ‘bruh’ as an interjection. It is possible these terms could grow and mature along with the current generation of students and become more widely used and more popular throughout society. If ‘bruh’ follows these patterns, dictionary publishers should adjust their entries to match the developing usage. 

At the very least, in the end, our data “reveals a small part of our own linguistic behavior and that of the people around us so that we can find some patterns related to social factors” (Naomi Gu). Senior, Tife Dosunmu adds, “The astonishing thing is that we were able to observe how other people’s perspective regarding what other people know, believe, and think, alters the form and nature of our speaking habits” (Tife Dosunmu). Finally,  Seamus Blake states, “understanding the way people speak is important for communities and culture. By investigating slang here at SSFS, we can begin to understand how we as a “culture” speak and interact with one another on a casual or informal basis.” While providing insight to certain slang, this study has prompted even more fascinating questions about social factors and sociolinguistic constraints (such as, in this case, gender and age) toward slang at SSFS. That is why studies like this are important: to understand why language changes and to see where the change occurs. 


A special thanks to the 19 students and 8 faculty who took time out of their week to respond kindly to our requests to be interviewed, and to Leslie McDonald and Cory Cloud for sharing their expertise in statistical analysis. A special recognition goes also to Sociolinguistics students Keira Schroeder, Cody Xu, and Njandee Murangi who gave extra of their time to co-author, organize, and edit this write-up of our class project.