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