One happy language!

Geoffrey Nunberg nunberg at ISCHOOL.BERKELEY.EDU
Thu Sep 1 17:15:45 UTC 2011

> From: Jonathan  <wuxxmupp2000 at GMAIL.COM>
> Date: August 31, 2011 3:29:01 PM PDT
> Subject: Re: One happy language!
> Well, I suppose a genuine "positivity bias" in English would mean great
> publicity for our beloved language and a possible open-sesame for grant
> money to compare it with, say, Mandarin.
> The authors - all five of them - seem unable to conceive of the distinction
> between a happiness bias in the structure of a language (perhaps a la
> Sapir-Whorf) and an overall cultural preference to accentuate the positive
> whenever possible.

Right. And over and above the elementary confusion about langue and parole and the methodological issues, the question is, what would this prove it it were cleanly done and true? The authors, like the Wired reporter, seem to assume that the prevalence of positive words in the corpora reflects a positive attitude on the part of the speakers & writers -- that is, that people who talk a lot about being happy most likely are. (Wired headline: "Happy Words Trump Negativity in the English Language"; from the paper: "in our stories and writings we tend toward prosocial communication.")

It reminds me of the study of the titles of nineteenth-century books by the George Mason University historians Dan Cohen and Fred Gibbs, who worked with the Google Books corpus. They concluded that the fact that  "hope" and "happiness" became less frequent in book titles in the second half of the nineteenth century supports the thesis that there was an undercurrent of depression in the period. But that rests on the same assumption about the correlation between positive words and positive feelings, which isn't simply unproven, but on the face of things implausible. As Schopenhauer put it in Studies in Pessimism: "It is a curious fact that in bad days we can vividly recall the good time that is now no more; but in good days, we have only a very cold and imperfect memory of the bad." As I sit here with a bum back, I can only add, "I'll say!"

Okay, here's a ragged but suggestive empirical test. Take the first twenty songs containing the word 'happy' that appear in a Google search on [happy lyrics]. In six of these, by my judgment, the speaker is unambiguously describing him- or herself as happy; in ten, the speaker is clearly angry or unhappy; in four the speaker expresses a desire to be happy but leaves his or her present state indefinite (see below for examples). You could go back and forth about how to classify a couple of these, but it would be hard to argue that the general tendency was unrepresentative of popular song lyrics. Of course it may be that in other genres or other cultures this works differently, but quantitative evidence alone is not going to tell you that. Question: what can we prove about our emotions by counting words denoting positive emotional states? Answer: jackshit.


Songs in which the speaker/singer more-or-less unambiguously reports being happy (6):

Nevershoutnever, "Happy":  I'm happy knowing that you are mine/The grass is greener on the other side/The more I think the more I wish/That we could lay here for hours and just reminisce/ Ooh Ooh

Ashanti, "Happy"; Boy you fill me with so much joy, you give whatever it is I need/ my love here to stay won't ever leave,/so glad that you fell in love with me.

Alexia, "Happy": You know what I'm saying?
/ Happy!
 It's so nice to be happy
!/Everybody should be happy...

I'm also counting here Bjork's "Violently Happy," though the lyrics leave some room for discussion:  Violently happy! 'cause i love you, Violently happy! i'm aiming too high/Violently happy! it will get me into trouble/Violently happy! i'm getting too drunk/violently happy! i'm daring people to jump off roofs with me...

Also: a version by Sister Act of the gospel song "Oh, Happy Day," Blood, Sweat and Tears' "You Made me So Very Happy."

Songs in which the speaker is clearly unhappy or angry (10):

Snow Patrol "You could be happy": You could be happy and I won't know/But you weren't happy the day I watched you go/And all the things that I wish I had not said/Are played on lips 'til it's madness in my head...

Mudvane, "Happy": U1 2. Mudvane "Happy": In this hole/That is me/The dead are rolling over/In this hole Thickening dirt shoveled over shoulders...Oh, this pressured center rising/My life overturned/Unfair the despair/All these scars keep ripping open...

Natasha Bedinfield "Happy": Landlord's knocking at my door cussing me out/Got laid off my job the night before/Can’t figure how/I’m gonna fix tomorrow when/ Yesterday's still a mess/Can you tell me what’s the point man/ It all seems meaningless...

Pink, "Happy":. Pink "Happy": One night to you/Lasted six weeks for me/Just a bitter little pill now/Just to try to go to sleep/No more waking up to innocence/Say hello to hesitance.... I'll keep on rolling down this road/But I've got a bad, bad feeling

Intwine, "Happy": Isn't it strange/That the stars don't shine no more now since you're gone/…I hope you don't feel just like me/I hope you're happy

Liam Lynch, "Happy": "I'm happy, it's hardcore/happy as a coupon for a $20 whore ha-ha-ha hah/These are my lovehandles, and this is my spout, but if you tip me over, then mama said knock you out/I am special, I am happy, I am gonna heave/welcome to my happy world, now get your shit and leave

Also: Jenny Lewis, "Happy"; Sheryl Crow, "If it Makes You Happy"; Kate Nash, "Happy: Elf, "Happy"; Kate Nash, "Merry Happy"

Songs in which the speaker's present hedonic state is not determinable (4):
The Rolling Stones' "I need a Love to Keep me Happy," the Buzzcocks' "Everybody's Happy Nowadays"; Leona Lewis "Happy" ("So what if it hurts me? So what if I break down?Don't care about all the pain in front of me/I'm just trying to be happy, yeah"); Sara Evans, "To Be Happy."

The American Dialect Society -

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