The language of love

(Posted by Sandeep)

I love my parents, my brother and my friends. I love Duke and our basketball team. I love my law school, UCLA. I love walks along the Eno River in North Carolina at dawn. And I love the opportunities that my family and my education have afforded me.

I used the same word—“love”—in all of those sentiments, but I didn’t mean the same thing. To be sure, love is a complex, multifaceted idea in any language. But the unique English colloquial use of the word spans many different meanings, from appreciation to liking to lust to romance. To non-native speakers, the protocols around its use are often perplexing. Hell, even for native English speakers, finding the appropriate moment to say “I love x” can be difficult.

So let’s try to sort these out. Professing unconditional love to one’s family is common in Anglophone cultures. To tell your friends that you love them is fairly common, too. Saying you love abstract or inanimate things, like a university or a leisurely walk, is a common idiom in English, even though the feeling cannot be reciprocated. “Love” is also thrown around flippantly in situations where reciprocation is either unwanted, unspoken or unexpected. We have different situational terms to describe love, such as “platonic” or “unrequited.” “Love” can also be used as a euphemism for physical relations, from the phrase “making love” to the clever substitution of “love” for a certain four-letter word in clean versions of explicit songs.

But in English-speaking romantic relationships, the moment when someone looks at his or her partner and says “I love you” is a watershed—a fantastically significant event after which everything supposedly changes. Commitment! Soul mates! Indeed, to say “I love you” requires the courageous expectation that the statement and sentiment will be reciprocated. As any soap opera viewer knows, the seconds after that first “I love you” can be agonizing: Will she or won’t she?

But imagine for a moment that you’re having a whirlwind romance in Paris. You’re at your favorite café waiting for your date. You’re nervous—it’s only the second time you’ve met up—but after you share the obligatory bisous in greeting, you start to feel at ease. Then your date leans over the table, smiles and says, “Je t’aime.” Hold up. Did the L-word just get pulled out?

Sort of. “Aimer” is used for both “like” and “love,” so its use isn’t surrounded by the sort of momentous protocol that the English verb is. “It is an important phrase for a relationship,” Duke University French lecturing fellow Christelle Gonthier told me, “but a couple can use ‘Je t’aime’ when they’re just starting to go out. In France, there’s not so much restraint as far as feelings go.” This was baffling to me, especially since the epic misplacement of the “I love you” moment is a running motif in American culture.

Now close your eyes again and imagine that you’re on the hot streets of Bombay, holding hands with your significant other. It’s been a few months since you started dating, but you haven’t yet experienced the “I love you” turning point. Keep waiting, my friend—it’s not going to come.

In Indian cultures, love can be expressed through actions, but it is almost never explicitly spoken. If it is expressed verbally, it will likely be in English. I didn’t even know how to say “I love you” in my first language, Kannada, until I looked it up online about two years ago. Most of my Hindi, Marathi and Bengali-speaking friends don’t know how to say the phrase, either. I have never felt unloved by my family—it’s just that the explicit articulation of that familial love isn’t part of our style. Sometimes silent demonstrations are more powerful.

Other languages guard love, too. In Chinese, “wo ai ni” is a well-known phrase, but its use is rare. Germans save “Ich liebe dich” for exclusively romantic situations, preferring “Ich habe dich lieb” (roughly, “I like you”) for platonic relationships. To many cultures, love is an intensely personal and important emotion.

It’s different here. Despite how puritanical America can often seem, our non-romantic use of the word “love” is laxly enforced. We’re no steamy Latin culture, but it’s heartening to note how freely we distribute “love.”

To me, the permissive use of the word “love” in English doesn’t devalue the idea. It strengthens it through reinforcement. Even if we aren’t often open with our feelings, maybe the repeated and free use of the word “love” will eventually shift something in our collective consciousness. If the casual use of hateful speech can create pernicious environments, then why couldn’t the casual use of “love” do the opposite?

After all, who ever said that putting more love into the world was a bad thing?

A version of this post ran in The (Duke) Chronicle on 2/10/11.

Advertisements