Sunday, January 3, 2010

Linguistics of Love Part I: Confusing the Language

{define: word} n. a speech sound, serving to communicate meaning

"Is ‘I Love You’ merely a set of sounds?" I surveyed some friends. My Beloved, whose first language is German, answered that he loves me in every language, while his roommate, who speaks English and Patois, feels that “I Love You” in either tongue doesn't have the weight he's told it's supposed to. In my own family, whose primary language is Vietnamese, we never heard the words until my father dropped me off for college. In the parking lot, he said, “I love you,” in English, as if the Vietnamese words are a curse stalking survivors of the Second Indochinese War. It seems, from my informal survey, that the meaning of love and the speech sound that represents it are no more necessarily acquainted than third cousins.

But if words cannot be counted upon to deliver even the most universal sentiments intact, how can we trust any speech? Why do I bother calling my parents or writing this blog under the long shadow of Babel?

The legend from the book of Genesis goes that the sons of Noah planned to build a tower that would reach Heaven, The Tower of Babel. To punish our arrogance, God “confused the language of the whole earth.” From then, even two workers facing each other could not communicate to move a brick, so they stopped building the city, and “the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of the whole earth.” God, doesn’t that explain so much? Now, even people ostensibly speaking the same language can feel the distance of continents between them.

Coming up:
Linguistics of Love Part II: Learning Another’s Language
Linguistics of Love Part III: Developing Dialects


  1. I agree with the roommate. Also, I think in some languages, like Portuguese, when translated to English, it really means nothing, simply "I can tolerate you for a little while".

  2. As the definition suggests, a word is only a sound, an audio representation of a thought or idea. Like the shadows on the wall of the allegorical cave, they bear only the faintest semblance to the real thing, much to the chagrin of writers everywhere. And since love casts no shadow, trying to put it into words often feels as frustrating as trying to explain particle physics to a mouse.

  3. I hate that in German, the word "lieb" means "nice" or "good" ("ein liebes Maedchen," "sei so lieb und reich mir ne Cola"). It almost cheapens the word "Liebe" for me. I also dislike that there are two different "I love yous" - "ich hab dich lieb" for family and friends, or the person you're dating before you're on "ich liebe dich" terms - pretty much exclusively used for lovers and McDonald's ("ich liebe es"). (Hungarian differentiates between this a little, at least written - to close friends, you sign notes with "puszi" - kisses, but "szeretlek" almost exclusively limited to romantic love.) It somehow seems cheap to tell my friends that I have love for them, especially coming from a native language where "I love you" is used for both friends and family.

  4. First anonymous and Erica, I can't wait for you two to read part III. Second anonymous, I think Allegory of the Cave is a brilliant way of looking at it.

  5. I absolutely love that I found your blog! I just started working out ideas for a master thesis in Linguistics surrounding the semantics of love. I have not the faintest clue exactly what path I'll be taking yet. Just writing down ideas. But I found this quote on wiki under "love" - "Love is sometimes referred to as being the 'international language,' overriding cultural and linguistic divisions." Is love universal? The idea is so abstract that I cannot agree with the idea of love being universal within the 'word' itself. However I do agree with the idea that love has no boundaries in a general sense. But each individuals experience with love is based on: cultural, religious, emotional, physical, and past experiences. I want to focus on the relationship of love and linguistics. That idea is way too broad. Any ideas? I want to work in the area of semantics though.

  6. Jennifer, did you narrow down a topic yet? Do you mean the expression of love through language, as in a comparative study?



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