In the English language, ‘love’ is a catch-all term for many different kinds of feelings. This is only partly why English speakers are so comfortable slinging it around.
If love knows no boundaries, then surely there’s no language barrier that could prevent us from being on the same page about what it means. In theory, love in other languages is still just…love.
As it turns out, that’s not entirely the case. While the emotions of love are probably universal, the way we talk about them, the words we use to describe them, and the cultural mores that we filter them through are not.
Robert Johnson put it this way in The Fisher King and the Handless Maiden:
“Sanskrit has 96 words for love; ancient Persian has 80, Greek three, and English only one. This is indicative of the poverty of awareness or emphasis that we give to that tremendously important realm of feeling. Eskimos have 30 words for snow, because it is a life-and-death matter to them to have exact information about the element they live with so intimately. If we had a vocabulary of 30 words for love … we would immediately be richer and more intelligent in this human element so close to our heart. An Eskimo probably would die of clumsiness if he had only one word for snow; we are close to dying of loneliness because we have only one word for love. Of all the Western languages, English may be the most lacking when it comes to feeling.”
Whether English speakers are suffering from a poverty of the heart is largely a matter of who you ask. If anything, from the perspective of other countries, the United States is neck-deep in an overflow of “love.”
That’s because “love” is a catch-all term we use to describe our feelings toward doughnuts and soulmates alike — as well as friends, family members, celebrity crushes, a GIF we saw on Twitter, and the fashion choices of someone we just shook hands with for the first time. Some say this cheapens, or devalues, the meaning of the word. Others say you can never have too much.
One study found that international students said “I love you” more frequently in English than they did in their native language, and another study found that “I love you” was expressed more often by American couples than German ones. The researchers of the latter study pointed out that aside from our tendency to use “love” to mean many different things, the United States was also shaped by the free-love hippie ideals of the 1960s and various other movements encouraging more emotional openness.
All of this fits neatly with recent research that confirmed that emotions are at once universal and expressed in ways that are highly dependent on our cultural upbringing. For the most part, every language has a built-in understanding that words associated with “joy” don’t belong in the same group as words associated with “regret,” but there are exceptions. For instance, some Austronesian languages associate “love” with “pity.” Pity the fool, for the fool is in love.
So what’s “love” got to do with it?
Perhaps it has to do with being more expansive than simply throwing away the cheap line…”Love ya,” “Love You,” “Luvya” same for baseball, apple pie, hotdogs, puppies. It has lost its meaning.
How about this, start adding the word BECAUSE to the phrase. “I love you because________”
It is harder than you think, but infinitely more meaningful than simply ILY. Try if for a week and see what it does to your mate.
For example: I Love You Because____________
- You’re so darn cute
- You are such a good cook
- You keep our house so nice and clean
- You always shower and are clean when we go to bed
- You are serious about your personal Bible study
- You have such a tender heart
- You work so hard to love all our children
- You love puppies as much as I do
- You have such a cute butt
- You love me
- You said yes when I asked you to marry me
- You can find things I can never find
- You work hard at having girlfriends
- You make our yard so pretty with the flowers you plant
- You love sitting on the front porch with me in the evenings
- You love the same friends I do
- You like going to the movies with me
- You like to take turns planning anniversaries
- You ask me ‘what can I do for you today’
- I know I can ask you for nearly anything and have a reasonable expectation of being able to get it.
- You pray for me every day
- You build me up to other people
- You have such a forgiving spirit…especially toward me
- You keep yourself in good shape
- You love me the way I want to be loved
- You put up with me
Borrowed in part from an article by Steph Koyfman in Babbel Magazine, February 2022