Happy Languages

It seems that most humans are inclined towards pessimism and negativity: look at how we enrapt by the awful occurrences we encounter day to day (from gossip to car accidents), or how sordid and scandalous news spreads like wildfire (especially when compared to more positive developments, which are more likely to get no reporting in the first place).

But a recent study suggests that contrary to popular belief, or indeed to our frequent reactions to negativity, our fundamental means of communication is rife with a “universal positivity bias”. As The Atlantic reports:

This bias was first posited in 1969, when a pair of psychologists wrote a paper called “The Pollyanna Hypothesis,” named for the fictional orphan girlwith a propensity to look on the bright side. The original study had high school boys, who belonged to different cultures and spoke different languages, do word association tasks, and then ranked whether the pairs were positive or negative. More often, they were positive.

In the new PNAS study, researchers analyzed texts from Google Books, Twitter, the New York Times, a Google Web Crawl, subtitles from movies and TV shows, and music lyrics. They measured how frequently words were used in each language (English, German, Chinese, Korean, French, Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese, Arabic, Russian, and Indonesian), and had native speakers rate how negative or positive they felt upon hearing those words.

In every language, on every platform, the median happiness score was higher than five—five being a totally neutral word—as seen in the chart below. The yellow is the “above-neutral” portion, and the blue is the “below-neutral.”

Below is the aforementioned chart. In total, over 100,000 words spanning ten languages were examined.

Given that these languages cover a large proportion of the world’s population (especially when you count non-native speakers), it is safe to say that most humans communicate in a language that leans towards positivity. Moreover, there are some nuances between languages:

Spanish and Portuguese were the most happy, in this study. For some languages, it really depended what kind of text the researchers were looking at—in English, music lyrics were significantly less positive than books, the New York Times, or even Twitter.

So all the languages studied tended to use happy words more often, but overall, languages also contained more happy than unhappy words. The researchers also measured “average word happiness” and found it to be high, regardless of how frequently those words were used in the text. So even lesser-used words were more often positive than negative.

As someone who is not a scientist, let alone linguist, I am not sure what to make of these results or their implications. The responses to the article seem skeptical or at least neutral, with one commentator pointing out something that also came to my mind:

The study does not cover words used in everyday interpersonal speech by everyday people, only the mere existence of the word types and writing, which is done by professional and political individuals to show off in one way or another. Maybe the study proves language bias accurately, but not the bias of language users in everyday life.

I would be curious to know how positive languages are when used in an everyday, colloquial context among average people. Were such a study possible, it would yield more comprehensive results. But given the recentness of this study, perhaps we can expect that in the future. For now, I am inclined to agree with the article’s conclusion:

“Words, which are the atoms of human language, present an emotional spectrum with a universal, self-similar positive bias,” the researchers write. While individual texts—books, songs, tweets—may skew negative, all in all, it looks like language is a positive tool.

What are your thoughts on this?

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2 comments on “Happy Languages

  1. The Sapir Whorf hypothesis posits that the language used changes the brain, and considering the recent developments in neuroplasticity I tend to think this is the case and that this theory is, at least to some extent, confirmed by empirical evidence. There’s also research that demonstrates that learning a second language changes the brain, ergo the theory again seems validated.

    As an Epicurean philosopher I am very interested in the intersection with linguistics, and I wish I had more of a background on this, as I think some words do sound more pleasant than others (many conlangers have created beautiful languages for pure aesthetics or for noble sci fi races, and “ugly” languages like the one fashioned for the Orcs). I wonder if a conlang experiment could be carried out for the sake of demonstrating how the aesthetics and the content expressed of a language may change the brain over the long term, or maybe if an existing language that meets the aesthetic criteria and that is used to express sweet or positive things could be used for an experiment of this sort, measuring the neural changes.

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