However you look at it, humans love to talk happy. No matter what the reason, we like to suppress negative comments in our language, sometimes making our relationships smoother. Doesn’t matter how scientists try to explain it, among the most used words in a wide range of the languages they studied are those who express positive meanings rather than negative ones.
This study was published in the journal PNAS, considered to be the largest research ever conducted on the emotional connotations of natural languages. Its core hypothesis, also known as under the name of Pollyanna, confirmed that human communication – the social situation in which humans feel the happiest – will most likely take a turn on the happy lane.
This hypothesis was first enunciated in 1969, and it had two main theories: one, that humans are social creatures, therefore desiring and enjoying the pleasure of communicating with others. And two, that language, as means of communication, will largely mirror this positive emotion in social exchanges. The authors of Pollyanna hypothesis suggests that, unlike negative words, positive emotions conveyed into speech should be expected to be more prominent, more significant, easier to learn and prone to use.
Great minds got together for the new study: experts and linguists, led by an international group of mathematicians from the University of Vermont. Since technology has advanced so much, providing new tools which the researchers in 1969 did not have available, the new research set out to test Pollyanna hypothesis.
Ten languages were subjected to the test, which started with conducting a massive research for 10,000 most used words in each language. The sources were as varied as it gets: Twitter, Google’s Web Crawl, New York Times issues and the Google Books Project. In addition, the team combed through a digital library of movie and TV series subtitles and also popular song lyrics.
Combining all these sources, and cross-referencing them, the team could generate a database with the most used words for each of the following languages: English, German, French, Spanish, Russian, Korean, Indonesian, Brazilian Portuguese, Chinese and Egyptian Arabic. For English, the team combined the sources from Google Books, Twitter, music lyrics and The New York Times.
The next step was to pay native speakers from each of the ten languages to rank each of those words on a scale from1 to 9, where 9 was the most positive or happy word, 5 was considered neutral, and 1 was the most negative or sad word. In the end, 50 ratings were given by native speakers for each word of the database.
The conclusion showed that speakers of each language, in its entirety, tend to consider and use words with positive connotations a lot more frequently and in more varied forms than they use negative words. Not all languages tested the same level of happiness, of course. Top four happiest languages, in this order, were Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese, English and Indonesian. On the other end of the happy language list, in this order, from the least happy up, were Chinese, Korean, Russian and Arabic. Working our way up the list, the levels of linguistic happiness increased.
The confirmation of the Pollyanna hypothesis based on this enormous study is not as sure as we’d like it to be. There are still some variables which cannot be measured by this study. For example, whether or not the ten languages could reflect the human language as whole, or if the most-used words of each language should reflect accurately the emotional level of that language. The researchers also thought of the idea that maybe the words we use mostly should be seen as conveyers of emotional states or just mirrors of dealing with different circumstances.
The team is positive that instruments like these, which are based on extensive studies, might be used as “hedonometers”, tools for measuring satisfaction and happiness overall in a language. Depending largely on the sources of these instruments, they might show low levels of happiness throughout an entire culture, or shifting moods among people using the same language. Spoken word is a characteristic of a people who are also sharing the same cultural perspective and social background. Improved over time, such instruments might “learn” to reflect and chart different dynamics of collective selves around the globe.
In the conclusion of their study, the authors asserted that the linguistic code of our emotional nature seems to be universal. However, they caution that whoever might take another attempt of studying the level of happiness in languages, should measure it as a whole, not just study bits and pieces of it. They hope that other experts might endeavor to study different languages than those which were a part of this study, and try to include happy phrases, not just words.
Image Source: Affairs Today