Human languages have more words that are viewed as being positive than words that are seen as negative.
A group of researchers led by Peter Sheridan Dodds of the University of Vermont recently posted a study on the internet analysing how people view different words. We first saw it on Medium.com.
The researchers assembled collections of words from a variety of sources for each of ten languages. They then pared down these collections to focus on about 10,000 of the most commonly used words in each language.
They paid native speakers of the languages to assess how positive or negative each word is, on a 1-9 scale. A score of 1 means a word has a highly negative connotation (in English, “killing” had an average score of 1.7), a 5 means a word is neutral (“price” had an average of 5.0), and a 9 means a word is very positive (“love” had an average of 8.4).
The researchers were then able to plot the distribution of word scores, in the chart below. Yellow indicates words that are above the neutral score of 5, and thus were judged by native speakers as being more positive. Blue indicates words below that score, representing negative words. The red line shows the median score in the collection, and the collections are ranked based on those median words. Finally, the light grey lines indicate deciles, breaking each collection into ten equally sized groups, giving an indication of how tightly packed or spread out words are in each group:
The biggest result is that a majority of each collection of words was scored as positive by native speakers. Words in all ten of the languages studied and coming from all of the different sources used are more likely to have positive connotations than negative ones.
Another cool result comes out of differences between the languages. Mexican Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese words were more likely to be rated as positive than words in the other languages.
The website accompanying the paper includes a tool that lets users compare the scores for word equivalents in different languages. Here’s a comparison between English and Spanish words:
What’s most impressive about these charts is that in most cases the scores for words are quite similar across languages. The main exceptions are situations where a word has multiple meanings in one language. An example given in the paper is the English word “lying”, which had a pretty strong negative connotation, being translated into Spanish as “acostado”, carrying a sense of “lying down” and getting a more favourable happiness score.
The paper’s accompanying website also includes lists of the words in each language studied, along with their happiness scores. “Laughter” was the highest scored word in English, with an average score of 8.5 out of 9. The two least happy words were “terrorist” and “suicide”, each having average scores of 1.3, just above the minimum possible score of 1.
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