"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." - Robert Johnson, "The Fisher King and the Handless Maiden"
The beautiful, red roses that spent a week on my table before ending up in the garbage are a distant Valentine's Day memory, but I've still got love on the brain. Specifically, the different ways we talk about it.
According to Roman Krznaric's fascinating book, How Should We Live?, the ancient Greeks had six different kinds of love; Eros (sexual passion), philia (friendship love), ludus (playful love), agape (selfless love), pragma (longstanding love), and philautia (self-love). There are about eleven words for love in Arabic and about five in Hebrew. I had a Russian manicurist who claimed that there were over 30 ways to talk about love in that language, but a half hour of googling only brought up любовь (pronounced lyoo-BOHF), and a host of videos that seem aimed at American men intending to propose to (younger) Russian women. There seems to be three different kinds of love in Chinese; family love, friendship love and romantic love, but according to The Global Times, love is not something the Chinese express with a great deal of regularity, or comfort. "Youths telling their parents 'I love you' on the phone have left many parents in shock, clearly not ready for the kind of affection that is rarely expressed in words in Chinese families, according to two videos that recently went viral online. One clip shown on an Anhui TV station showed a group of college students telling their parents "I love you" - many doing so for the first time in their life. Some parents were baffled, answering with questions like "What is going on?" "Are you drunk?" or "Are you pregnant?" According to Business Insider and The South China Morning Post, divorce rates are skyrocketing in China. Would they have better luck with love if they talked about it more?
Anyone who has spent any time eating in Spain knows that these are people who really know how to get the most out their ingredients (I once had a meal there where I am sure I consumed every part of pig, including its brain). Love follows suit, with at least eleven ways to use love as a noun, four as a verb, and twenty-four phrases about love.
Poor English! We only have one word to express love, and that's love. So what of it? Were the ancient Greeks happier in love than we are?
Hard, if not impossible, to say, but the language surrounding love gives us a hint. Looking through the list of the tip 500 songs of all time, over 75% of them are love songs, and in most cases, love is an extreme emotion that we either can't control, or don't want to, can't get enough of, that lifts us up to the highest heights, or drags us down to the lowest depths of despair. Whether it's in books or movies or just everyday conversation, love is generally something that happens to us, without consent. We fall in love. We are smitten. We are crazy in love. We burn with passion. We are heartbroken. It's fair to say that Western culture looks upon love as a positive thing, and yet we talk about it in the same terms as an accident, like being struck by a brick falling from the sky. This would be the kind of love the Ancient Greeks characterized as Eros, and they believed that he emerged right after Chaos, before any of the other Gods. They could not have known that serotonin levels of a person in love are very similar to a person diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, but they clearly recognized the havoc being in love can wreak. According to an article on marriage through the centuries in the Week.com, "love and marriage were once widely regarded as incompatible with one another. A Roman politician was expelled from the Senate in the 2nd century B.C. for kissing his wife in public — behavior the essayist Plutarch condemned as 'disgraceful.'" That doesn't sound like too much fun.
Across cultures and time, one thing is clear. Love, in all its forms, is a human connection. In What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, perhaps one of the best stories ever written, two couples, both in their second marriages, spend an afternoon drinking gin and grappling with both the impermanence of relationships and the enduring nature of love itself. Carver's characters continue to talk and argue what love is, and isn't, and nothing is resolved as the light fades from the room.
You can use one word for it in Brooklyn or two dozen in Barcelona, but either way, love is difficult to get a handle on. But even so, let's hope it's here to stay.