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Monday, November 24, 2014 (read 1206 times)

Spanish - The Language of Happiness?

by David

Is the Spanish language the language of happiness? Maybe not, but a study by Peter Dodds from the University of Vermont suggests that the Spanish language has a tendency to be employed with more positive connotations with respect to other languages. At the other end of the spectrum, Chinese was found to be the language with the least positive bias. He, along with his team of researchers, has spent the last ten years studying how common words in different languages can vary in their value as transmitters of positive or negative feelings. This study also supports a previous study from 1969 in which the "Pollyanna Hypothesis" emerged which stated that there is a universal bias that speakers tend to be more positive in their use of the language.  The name Pollyanna comes from the early 20th century book where the main character, Pollyanna, always tried to find something positive from every situation. In the preface of his study, Dodd writes:

Using human evaluation of 100,000 words spread across 24 corpora in 10 languages diverse in origin and culture, we present evidence of a deep imprint of human sociality in language, observing that (1) the words of natural human language possess a universal positivity bias; (2) the estimated emotional content of words is consistent between languages under translation; and (3) this positivity bias is strongly independent of frequency of word usage…

What this shows is that globally, language is a hard wired mechanism that is inherently positive. This is a good thing since we can take it to mean that we are evolving socially in positive direction with greater consciousness of human rights and decreasing violence.

What is so impressive about this study and why it goes beyond the previous 1969 study is its scope and reach. Dodds and his team have analyzed 100,000 words in 24 languages from cultures around the world to try to get the most representative sample to study. The study had two important sources of information, this first was a survey among native speakers to rate words 1 to 9 (9 being the most positive) in the different languages. By doing this, they were able to get 50 scores per word for a total of 5,000,000 individual assessments. The other sources used were words taken from texts and studied for the positive or negative connotations. Here is an image of a comparison of words in Spanish and Chinese:

Spanish vs Chinese

If you would like to compare different languages you can go here to see how the same words scored in different languages as well as other data compiled by the researchers.

Among the positive most used Spanish words with a positive bias are "amor, felicidad, paz, sonrisa, amigos and alegría" (love, happiness, peace, smile, friends and joy). Among the most negative words used in Spanish are "muerte, guerra, tragedia, odio, miseria and injusticia" (death, war, tragedy, hate, misery and injustice). In general Dodds found that more positive words are used since they are easier to learn, used with greater frequency and are considered more significant. This appears to be the rule to that can be applied to even classic texts like Moby Dick, Don Quijote, Ulysses, Oliver Twist, Crime and Punishment and The Count of Monte Cristo to name a few.

It is interesting and relieving to know that language, as a universal concept, is inherently positive since there is "a broader body of research in psychology suggesting that positivity plays a more important role in people's existence than Negativity.  For example, we tend to remember pleasing information more accurately than unpleasant information." 

This research team has created a "Hedonometer" which you can consult to see if today is more positive or negative. The hedonometer also show you the words that are being used and if the tendency for the day is negative or positive from 1 to 9 (1 being extremely negative and 9 being extremely positive). On any given day, the score tends to float between 5 and 6. If you go to the web page you will find the daily graph, but also lots of information regarding the techniques and methods behind this ongoing study of language and its effect on us.

As an expat living in Spain, I have always noticed a certain joy in the way people communicate with one another: Spanish people are famous around Europe for their way of speaking louder than their neighbors. It is always funny how lively conversations in the bar are sprinkled with expletive-laced Spanish phrases without offending anyone--something that would make most uninitiated visitors blush. This good-naturedness is possibly what has permitted Spain to survive the incredibly difficult social and economic conditions of one of the longest economic crisis in recent history. The social unrest that has manifested itself in other affected countries never materialized to the same degree here.

Spain may not be the happiest country in the world but my anecdotal observations and experience tells me that there may be some validity to the conclusions of Dodds' research. If you already speak Spanish or are considering to start speaking Spanish, maybe you'll also feel more positive about the world around you. 

Keywords: spanish,spanish words,spanish phrases,spanish language,spanish people,speak spanish

Posted In: Culture


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