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Even though most people seem to enjoy complaining (some more so than others), it appears that the languages we do it in don’t feel the same way. According to some interesting research, English has a bias towards positivity, along with other languages. This might come as a surprise to those aware of the trope that complaining about the weather is a national sport in the United Kingdom. However, this positivity-bias seems to a more-or-less constant feature in human languages.

So today, we will take a closer look at the research that claims to prove an overall optimism in the world’s languages.

The makeup of languages

Of course, the main question you should be asking right now is “How on Earth do they quantify positivity?”. Well, to start, you need to find out how people feel about certain words. Naturally, a large percentage of anything we say consists of words that don’t really carry much emotional punch. For example, a lot of language consists of function words, these are words that don’t contribute much to the meaning of a sentence but rather help with the syntax in general. So, in the last sentence, these words would include: these, that, to, the, of, a, but, rather, with, the, in. Essentially, all the conjunctions, determiners, prepositions, pronouns, etc.

In addition to function words, each language also has content words. And these are the ones that interest us here. Content words are the ones that carry most of the meaning in a sentence and whose positivity the researchers set out to measure.

The (un)happiness of words

In order to do that, they gave some native speakers a list of common words found in their language and got them to rate them from a very frowning face to a broadly smiling one on a scale of one to nine. So, for English, the most positive turned out to be “laughter”, “happiness”, and “love”, while the worst were “terrorist”, “suicide”, “rape”. (While the function words were also rated, they all measured around five – in the neutral zone.)

And they did the same for nine other languages – Spanish, French, Simplified Chinese, Brazilian Portuguese, German, Indonesian, and Arabic. Essentially, the languages that have an easily accessible and vast library of online works that the researchers could analyse. They constructed 24 corpora across the ten languages, consisting of books, news outlets, social media, song lyrics, and so on.

The Pollyanna hypothesis

Equipped with their lists of emotionally-evaluated words and an expansive collection of works, they analysed the language used in the writings in all of the abovementioned languages. They did all of this to explore the Pollyanna hypothesis. Named after a famed children’s book character, the hypothesis was formulated already in 1969 and asserts that people use positive words more often and diversely than negative ones. Similar research had already been carried out in English and had indeed revealed a strong positivity bias. But one would imagine that at least one of the ten languages would disprove the hypothesis. Perhaps Russian, with its stereotypically gloomy outlook?

Not so.

Although some languages are happier than others, all of the ones analysed used positive words more often than negative ones. Out on the top came Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese and, while Simplified Chinese scored the lowest, it still demonstrated a positivity-bias. Interestingly, the optimism of the language used seemed to depend more on the source of the text than the language it was written in. Although, for example, Twitter in Russian is a happier place than Google Books, while the opposite is true for German and English.

Conclusion – Languages prefer the positive

At least according to this research, it seems that even when negative stories dominate the news cycle, we still perceive the world in a more positive light. While languages do have differing levels of optimism, all (at least the ones analysed) seem to veer towards the light. And to make this research even more engaging, the authors have also published a website where you can see for yourself the happiness index of the various sources they used. At hedonometer, you can see the positivity-curve for Twitter, world news, and your favourite books.


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