The pollyanna principle in English and French lexis: Some results and issues of methodology

This article reports on a comparison of variable lexis in English and French through a questionnaire study. The study was designed to investigate the different rates at which young speakers of English and French introduce non-standard adjectives that have negative and positive reference (e.g. ‘pathetic’ and ‘cool’). The research issues studied are twofold. We wished to test the validity of the ‘Pollyanna Principle’, a concept in linguistic pragmatics adapted from the ‘Pollyanna Hypothesis’ of psychology, and designed to account for the preference on the part of speakers for avoiding and/or mitigating negative terms and expressions.

We examine critically here the hypothesis suggested by I. Opie and P. Opie (1959) that negative terms used by children and adolescents tend to be relatively stable, in contrast to the rapid turnover of terms of approval. Against this however, more recent research into sociolinguistic variation in French suggests that contrary to what has been reported for many languages (notably English, the most intensively studied language from a sociolinguistic viewpoint), variation in the lexis of French is more prominent than in its pronunciation (Armstrong 2001). If true, this might imply that French speakers coin lexical items (both negative and positive) more frequently than speakers of English. The objective of the study was therefore to test the cross-linguistic validity of the Pollyanna Principle, by comparing reported rates of lexical innovation in English and French. The results presented here suggest that Pollyanna does indeed have validity across the two languages, but that recent social mutations in the direction of greater informality have made possible the readier expression of negative emotions, especially through the increased acceptability of taboo terms.

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