Spanish Takes First Place as the Happiest Language

Are humans naturally positive thinkers? Does human language reflect this positivity? Are some languages more positive than others?

happiest language

The Pollyanna Hypothesis suggests that humans enjoy socializing with each other and that their communication reflects this.

This idea was first posited by University of Illinois psychologists in 1969. Their research found that human languages exhibit a clear positive bias, and that human beings had “a universal human tendency” to use positive words more frequently than negative ones, regardless of geographical location, culture or educational level.

New research in this area was recently carried out by Peter Sheridan Dodds, from the University of Vermont, and colleagues, that not only confirmed this hypothesis, but also showed that some languages are more likely to embody happier and more positive emotions than other languages.

Project researchers first gathered billions of words in 10 languages: Egyptian Arabic, Russian, Indonesian, Brazilian Portuguese, Chinese, French, Spanish, English, Korean and German based on their appearance in 24 different sources including song lyrics, television and movie subtitles, Twitter, and Google’s Web Crawl and then identified approximately 10,000 of the most frequently used words in each of the 10 different languages. Their next step was to contract a translation service which, in turn, hired some 2000 native speakers of these 10 languages to rate the words using a nine point scale of emotion based on a range of faces from deeply frowning to broadly smiling. Five million individual scores were collected.

The scores for each word were tallied using a computer program and the researchers discovered that in all 10 languages speakers used positive words in a wider range of forms than negative words. For example, in English, the word laughter had an average score of 8.50, food was rated 7.44, truck 5.48, greed 3.06 and terrorist 1.30. As might be expected, neutral words (like the) scored in the middle in all the languages studied.

The researchers were also able to rank the languages based on their linguistic happiness. All the languages were skewed toward the use of happy words, and this was true across all 24 sources. They also discovered, however, that despite the fact that all languages scored above the neutral rating of five on the one-to-nine scale, some languages did, indeed, have higher average word happiness than others: Chinese scored lowest, followed by Korean, Arabic, Russian, Indonesian, French, German, English, Portuguese, with the top spot going to Spanish.

The research seems to confirm the Pollyanna Hypothesis but – as the authors caution – it does so only if our words actually do convey our emotions.

Which language is most “important”?

To determine which language is the most “important” globally, we first must define the term “important”. Does it mean the language spoken by the most people, or the language spoken in the most countries, or the language of the most economically-developed nation, or…?

Global Language Network. Credit: S. Ronen et al., PNAS 2014. Interactive version:

Global Language Network. Credit: S. Ronen et al., PNAS 2014. Interactive version.

MIT Assistant Professor César Hidalgo and his team have come up with a way to answer this question in today’s globalized context: it’s the language that connects the most people. And, not surprisingly, they’ve discovered that “being born into a highly connected language is a better predictor of whether that person is going to be important or not, than being born into a language that is very populous, or that is spoken by people who are very wealthy.”

So, how did they determine which language is “most-connected”? The team used the Web and various repositories of data that enabled them to connect information and map languages spoken with others. They used Twitter, books (over 2.2 million volumes representing over 1,000 languages) and Wikipedia, connecting books translated from one language into another, articles on Wikipedia edited by humans (not bots) to see if editors were writing in multiple languages, and over a billion tweets sent by 17 million users in 73 languages, noting a connection each time a tweet was sent in more than one language.

Being able to communicate with a wider number of people gives one a certain amount of power because of the greater number of people who can be influenced. The team discovered that, after controlling for the income and population of language speakers, “[t]he centrality of a language in the global language network is a significantly strong predictor of whether that language produces a large number of successful people,” says Hidalgo.

So, which language was found to be the most highly connected? No surprises here: English, with over 50% of all Internet communication. Other language hubs (though to a far lesser extent) include Russian, German and Spanish.

Seseo, ceceo and distinction…or why Spaniards “lisp” and Latin Americans do not

One of the questions frequently posed by students of Spanish concerns the so-called “lisp” that can be heard from most, if not all, Spaniards when speaking Spanish: Why do Spaniards “lisp” (and some seemingly more than others) while Latin American Spanish speakers do not?

There are three important concepts that must be understood in order to answer this question: seseo, ceceo, and distinction.

“Seseo” (pronounced “seseo” in both standard Castilian and Latin American pronunciations) is the word used to describe the pronunciation of the letter “s” in all positions, the letter “z” in all positions, and the letter “c” before “e” or “i” (aka as the “soft” c) as a voiceless alveolar fricative. This variant is standard in Latin America and can be found in the Canary Islands, as well as in some parts of Andalusia.

“Ceceo” (pronounced /seseo/ in Latin American Spanish and /θeθeo/ in Castilian Spanish) is the word used to describe the pronunciation of the letter “s” in all positions, the letter “z” in all positions, and the letter “c” before “e” or “i” (aka as the “soft” c) as a voiceless corono-dentoalveolar groove sibilant. Though this sound lacks an official symbol in the International Phonetic Alphabet, it is usually represented by either [] or [θṣ]. This sound is unique to certain areas of Andalusia.

Andalucía ceceo and seseo

Modern distribution of seseo, ceceo and distinction in Andalusia.

Finally, “distinction” is the maintenance of the phonemic contrast – the differentiation in the pronunciation – between the letter “s” in all positions (pronounced as either an apico-alveolar retracted fricative (chiefly northern or central Spain) or lamino-alveolar retracted fricative (remaining areas)) – and the letters “z” in all positions and “c” before “e” or “i” (aka as the “soft” c) as a voiceless interdental fricative. This pronunciation is considered standard Castilian Spanish and is the basis for Spanish orthography.

The answer to our question of why Spaniards lisp and Latin Americans do not is tied closely to the history of Spain’s exploration of Latin America.

At the start of the century that saw Columbus reach America, Spanish had eight different sibilant phonemes. By the sixteenth century, they gradually began to merge and eventually simplified into three, two (the third was the sound represented by the letters “j” or “g” before “e” or “i”, and is not relevant here) of which corresponded to the letters “s” in all positions, the letter “z” in all positions, and the letter “c” before “e” or “i”. This simplification was not consistent throughout the Peninsula, and the process that took place in Andalusia and in the Canary Islands gave rise to new sibilant and non-sibilant sounds that were exclusive to those areas that eventually resulted in the phenomena of “seseo” and “ceceo”. It was the speakers of the former that made up the larger part of sailors and emigrants to the new lands, bringing with them the seseo-based linguistic variants that would form the foundation for the Latin American variants of Spanish, in particular coastal variants.

At the same time, a different phenomenon was taking place in Andalusia: ceceo. In many parts – particularly the south and west – the two phonemes /θ/ and /s/ merged, creating the sound [] ([θṣ]), which is close, but not identical to the standard Castilian [θ]. While often considered a marker of low socio-economic status, speakers may show sociolinguistic variation, switching between ceceo and distinction due to sociolinguistic pressure in certain settings, using, e.g., ceceo among family and friends and distinction in professional or public settings.


What language did Jesus speak?

Did Jesus spoke Hebrew or Aramaic?
During Pope Francis’ last visit to the Holy Land on 24th-26th May, a linguistic issue made an unexpected appearance in a pilgrimage described by the Pontiff as a “great grace” and an opportunity to “pray for peace” in the Middle East.

Only minutes after the first public encounter between Pope Francis and the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, the latter mentioned that Jesus spoke Hebrew to be immediately corrected by the Pontiff: “He spoke Aramaic”. Netanyahu was quick to reply: “He spoke Aramaic, but he knew Hebrew as well.” This quick conversation immediately raised the attention of linguists, language experts and the Catholic religious community in general: what language did Jesus speak? Did he speak Aramaic or did he speak Hebrew? Or was he well versed in both languages?

As stated by Ghil’ad Zuckermann, an Israeli linguistics professor, Jesus was a native Aramaic speaker. However, he pointed out that Jesus would have also known Hebrew as it was the written language of Holy Scriptures and the language commonly spoken amongst the lower classes; the majority of people Jesus ministered to.

Aramaic: Jesus’ Native Language
According to Omniglot, considered the most complete resource of past and current world languages, Aramaic is a Semitic language which was the lingua franca of much of the Near East from 7th century BC to 7th century AD. It was the main language spoken by Persians, Assyrians and Babylonians and it was spread well into Greece and the Indus Valley. Jesus grew within an Aramaic speaking community so he definitely spoke this language.
Aramaic was once the main language of the Jews and appears in some of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Christian communities in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon still use it and it is also still spoken by small communities in Turkey, Iraq, Armenia, Iran, Syria and Georgia.

“Agarrate Catalina”: What does it mean and where does it come from?

“Agarrate, Catalina,” is another widely-used, Argentine lunfardo expression, probably dating back to the 1940s and the story of a young circus artist called, Catalina.

 The legend describes the young Catalina as one of the youngest members of a family of trapeze artists in a circus which used to frequent the Porteño neighborhoods of Buenos Aires during the 1940s. As legend would have it, Catalina lost her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother all to fatal trapeze accidents when she was very young. Despite her family’s tragic history, Catalina continued to work in the same field, following the family tradition as a trapeze artist in the neighborhood of San Telmo.

Owing to the tragic events of her family’s history, whenever she stepped out in front of the public to perform, she was met with taunt after taunt to the tune of, “Agarrate bien, Catalina,” which in English literally translates to “Hold on tight, Catalina.” As time went on, the phrase used by many Argentines today, was gradually shortened to, “Agarrate, Catalina.”

The phrase is used in Argentina today to give warning to someone who’s about to launch themselves into a situation which probably won’t be easy and might not even turn out well in the end. The phrase is used as a warning to those who are attempting to follow a dangerous path, which will probably lead them into real troubles. The idea is to send a signal for that person to be alert and ready for the difficult times which await them ahead.

Sadly, as the story goes, Catalina also died during one of her circus functions when she was only 25 years old. Ironically, however, she didn’t die from a trapeze accident. She was, as legend would have us believe, hit directly in the chest by the cannonball man as he was propelled from the cannon and into the arena of the central tent.

If “Agarrate, Catalina” didn’t originate from the story of Catalina and her trapeze-artist family, it may have originated from the pre-race behavior of a popular jockey named, Leguizamo. Leguizamo used to ride above a female horse called, Catalina. Supposedly, before every race, he would mount Catalina and then just before the gunshot was fired, he would lean forward and whisper in his horse’s ear, “Agarrate, Catalina,” hoping that this would help him focus his horse and to win the race.

Photo: Exequiela Goldini

Beyond the mere lunfardo use of the phrase, “Agarrate Catalina” is now known, within a number of countries across the world, as the title of the Uruguayan Murga group of the same name. “Agarrate Catalina” was formed in April 2001 and has since that time continued relentlessly to sing and perform in many different countries, sharing its Uruguayan expressions and traditions with as many different cultures and audiences as possible.

The artistic director, Yamandú Cardozo and his brother, Tabaré Cardozo, have been in charge of the artistic direction of “Agarrate Catalina” since the very beginning. Their work is also deeply set in a range of social ideas and commentaries which pertain to the needs and concerns of Latin American communities in general. These ideas have included The Community, Common People, Civilization and The Journey.

A translation blip means obligatory chocolate for Japanese men on Valentine’s Day

Since the 1950s, Japanese women have showered the men in their lives with chocolatey gifts on Valentine’s Day, and all because of a tiny translation error made by a Japanese chocolate executive with a zest for Western traditions amidst post-war economic difficulties in Japan.


The Japanese Valentine’s Day Tradition explained…

When a Japanese woman wants to express sincere love for a man in her life, she’ll buy a very special chocolate gift, perhaps one in the shape of a car or a golf ball. She might even buy him a box of rich, creamy chocolates, filled with his favourite liquor.

The strange thing is that in modern-day Japan she must also buy chocolates for the men she couldn’t care less about. Cultural customs in Japan dictate that Japanese women are bound to buy chocolates for all the men that they know, even if they only choose to treat them to a standard, nothing-to-shout-about, chocolate bar on Valentine’s Day – a clear indication, in itself, of a certain lack of regard.

The giving of “giri-choco” or “obligation chocolate” plays a huge role in Japan’s Valentine’s Day traditions in the 21st century. Chocolate buying and giving is one of the most direct ways in which Japanese women can express their true feelings towards the men in their lives.

Chocolate traditions and blips in translations

Millie Creighton, a UBC professor of Anthropology, devotes part of her time to studying how the Japanese observe holidays. Her research reveals the ways in which the Japanese have incorporated the traditions and customs of Western holidays into their Eastern lives. Part of that research dates back to the 1950s when Valentine’s Day was first introduced to Japan.

Creighton’s discovery shows that an executive from a Japanese chocolate company took the idea of Valentine’s Day from Europe and convinced a number of Japanese department stores to promote the holiday as a way of improving the post-war effects on the Japanese economy. The Japanese executive in question misunderstood the traditions of Valentine’s Day in Europe and, thanks to the blip in his translation, Japan believed that chocolate-giving on Valentine’s Day was a one way affair – women sending chocolate gifts to men.

During the 1950s, Japan was keen to learn about Western traditions and to copy Western cultures. It was a country starved from “luxurious” items available in the West and so when Valentine’s Day first appeared on Japanese soil, there seemed to be no-better product than the Western sweet treat of chocolate for Japanese women to offer to the men that they loved – particularly on a day which was all about celebrating the joys of romantic love.

Modern developments and chocolate obligations

In the early years, chocolate-giving was reserved for the “special man” in the life of the Japanese female. It was treated as an act of romantic love. Since then, the tradition has developed to include “giri-choco” or “obligation chocolate” – the cultural custom which can be observed in Japan today.

Whether the giving of chocolate to all men seems strange or not, the tradition is loyally followed in Japan every year. Japanese women buy their chocolate gifts based on their feelings towards the men they are buying for and, in return, Japanese men get a very honest idea about what the women in their lives really think of them.

Could a Hebrew text translation reveal where King Solomon’s treasures are hidden?

University of St Andrews professor, James Davila, is the first to translate an ancient Hebrew text, the Massekhet Kelim (“Treatise of the Vessels”), into English. Davila’s translation of the text, taken from the 1648 Hebrew book, Emek Halchah, reveals further information about the whereabouts of King Solomon’s treasures.

ark of the covenant

Image showing the Ark of the Covenant being carried, Auch Cathedral, France. Photo by I. Vassil, released into public domain through Wikimedia

King Solomon, the third King of Israel who ruled for 40 years from 965BC to 925BC, remains a popular figure from ancient history. He has been documented as being incredibly wise and a very extravagant king. The Book of Kings makes reference to his 700 wives and parts of the Bible claim that he composed 1005 songs and 3000 proverbs. Amongst the many treasures belonging to King Solomon, lost when his temple was annihilated by the Babylonians during 597 and 586 B.C., was the infamous Ark of the Covenant (a gilded case which was constructed almost 3,000 years ago, to hold the Ten Commandments given by God to Moses, by the Israelites).

Davila’s translation of the Treatise of the Vessels, the first ever translation to have been made of the text into English, brings to light a number of references which allude to the possible whereabouts of King Solomon’s treasures and the Ark of the Covenant. The snag is that the references made are vague to say the least and even Professor Davila himself believes that whoever wrote the original script in Hebrew was influenced in his/her writings by popular legends and a variety of scriptural interpretation methods that would have formed part of the traditional methodology used at the time.

However, at the same time as referring to the Treatise of the Vessels as “entertaining fiction,” Davila is also quick to note the striking similarities between what is written in the Hebrew text he has just finished translating and what has already been revealed through earlier translations of the “Copper Scroll.” The Copper Scroll, thought to be about 1900 years old, is made of copper and makes references to the location and contents of hidden treasures. Both artefacts refer to “vessels” or “implements”, made of silver and gold. One particular section of the Treatise of the Vessels translates to, “seventy-seven tables of gold, and their gold was from the walls of the Garden of Eden that was revealed to Solomon, and they radiated like the radiance of the sun and moon, which radiate at the height of the world.”

Davila believes that the writer of the Hebrew text was simply creating an entertaining story. He doesn’t believe that the writer created the text to act in any way as a map to help others find King Solomon’s lost temple treasures. Davila also believes that the style of the writing in the text also lends us some interesting insights into the many kinds of Jewish legends that were popular during the Middle Ages. Professor Davila is further quick to add that this text helps us to see the many ways in which people during the Middle Ages understood and interpreted the Bible and how these interpretations are not part of the official interpretations that we have studied over time.

Whether the text refers to the same hidden treasures or not, the actual location of such wealth is not revealed in the text at any stage. There’ll be no Indiana Jones-like crusade for Professor Davila in the coming weeks, but the translation does at least provide another entertaining piece of fiction… particularly for those with a real interest in ancient history and a fetish for rich, extravagant King Solomon.

Don’t be a nincompoop!

British English is full of fun and fanciful terms. The phrase, “Don’t be a nincompoop!” is just one prime example.

British termImage courtesy of

“Nincompoop,” meaning fool or idiot, was traced back to its first usage in the 1670s by Jonson in his Dictionary of 1755. He believed the word to have come from the Latin legal term, “non compos mentis”, which translates to insane or mentally incompetent or not of sound mind. However, there are a number of etymologists who decidedly disagree with this explanation.

For example, some experts believe that “nincompoop” has actually developed from a proper name. Nicodemus, a derivation of Nicholas, has been cited as a possible example, as it was used in the French language to denote a fool.

Another band of etymologists, however, believe that “nincompoop” might simply be an invented word. The Oxford English Dictionary also believes that the origins of the word can be dated back to the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, and that there were a variety of versions of the word in use, including nicompoop and nickumpoop.

Folk etymology, like the kind John Ciardi from A Browser’s Dictionary uses to dismissively relate “nincompoop” to the Dutch phrase nicht om poep, which means “the female relative of a fool,” might hold some weight. “To poop” is an English verb used today to describe the action of going to the toilet, but in the past it was a verb which meant “to cheat” or “to fool.” This verb probably came from the Dutch verb, “poep”, which means “to shit” or “to fart,” which highlights interesting connections between the many meanings of these verbs.

According to Francis Grose’s slang dictionary of 1785, “nincompoop” has experienced a number of spelling variations. There have been recordings of nickumpoop, nincumpoop, nink-a-poop, ninkompoop, ninkumpupe, ninny-cum-poop. In Grose’s notes, “nincompoop,” regardless of how it is spelt, is the word used to describe someone, “who never saw his wife’s ****,” (the asterisks are printed, exactly as printed here, in Grose’s dictionary). An alternative etymology is offered by a later slang collector, John Camden Hotten, who in 1860 suggested the ‘corruption of ‘non compos mentis’ (not of sound mind).

Despite the uncertainty about the origins of the term, its use has always been pretty clear. “Nincompoop” is either used to refer to a fool or a simpleton. The “nincompoop” is a human being, lacking in intelligence and who flaunts his or her stupidity without shame in front of others. Favourable synonyms of the terms include, jackass, idiot, dunce, imbecile, or moron. Any term used to describe an ignorant simpleton can be replaced with the British phrase, “nincompoop”.

However, there are also a few instances in which “nincompoop” has been used to refer to something other than ignorant stupidity. “Nincompoop” has also been used to mean a suitor who lacks self-confidence and it was used by Thomas Shadwell in his 1672 play entitled, “Epsom Wells,” to refer to a hen-pecked husband.

It’s worth mentioning that “nincompoop” is still regularly used by the British in the 21st century in general conversation. It is used as a soft, teasing term amongst friends and loved ones, for the most part, rather than as a cutting term meant to cause pain to someone else or make them feel uncomfortable. The British love for silly-sounding words is probably one of the most important factors in the longevity of this particular 1670s phrase.


Where does the word Christmas come from?

“Christmas” is an Old English word, constructed from the combination of two words, namely “Christ” and “Mass”. The first recorded Old English version of the phrase, “Crīstesmæsse,” dates back to 1038, but by the Middle Ages the term had already morphed into “Cristemasse;” a slightly more modern version of the phrase.


The origins

The two separate parts of the word can be traced back to Greek, Hebrew and Latin origins. “Christ” comes from the Greek word “Khrīstos” (Χριστός) or “Crīst,” and there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that the Hebrew word “Māšîaḥ” (מָשִׁיחַ) or “Messiah,” which actually means “anointed,” has also played a considerable role in the construction of the first part of the word “Christmas.” The second part most probably comes from the Latin word, “Missa,” which refers directly to the celebration of the Eucharist.

It is also believed that “Christenmas” is an archaic version of the word “Christmas,” whose origins can be attributed to the Middle English phrase, “Cristenmasse,” which when literally translated becomes, “Christian Mass.”

Christmas… the international holiday

Even though “Christian Mass” or “Christ’s Mass” refers to the annual Christian commemoration of the birth Jesus Christ, “Christmas” is an international holiday which, throughout the ages, has been celebrated by non-Christian communities and been referred to via a variety of different names, including the following:

  • Nātiuiteð (nātīvitās in Latin) or “Nativity” means “birth” and has often been used as an alternative to the word “Christmas”
  • The Old English word, Gēola, or “Yule” corresponds to the period of time between December and January and eventually became associated with the Christian festival of “Christmas”
  • “Noel” is an English word which became popular during late 14th century and which is derived from the Old French term “Noël” or “Naël,”  literally translating to “the day of birth”

“Xmas”… modern or ancient?

It’s also worth noting that, even though most people tend to view the abbreviation “Xmas” as a modern bastardisation of the word “Christmas,” “Xmas” is an ancient term and not a grammatically-incorrect modern construction. “X” was regularly used to represent the Greek symbol “chi,” (the first letter of the word “Christ”) and was very popular during Roman Times.