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23.7.13

By Any Other Name

I have long though that one of the major failings of the English language is its lack of ability to distinguish types of love.  In English, there is only one way to express love and that is, well...love.

In the Greek language, they recognize four different forms of love: eros, agape, philia, and storge.  Some people add mania, but I understand this concept to be a state of being rather than an emotion, so I leave it off.

So the Greeks break love down into "physical or passionate love", "spiritual or transcendent love", "brotherly or mental love", and "parental or familial love".  Note that in Greek, there is no room to love ice cream or Boston cream pies.

I have always found this concept intriguing.  Certainly, in English, we have to qualify our love with a litany of adjectives or negatives, like the classic, "But I don't love you like that."  I always wondered how different our society would be if we could distinguish between kinds of love.

In Indonesian, which is essentially a dialect of sanskrit, there are three kinds of love: cinta, kasih and sayang.  They are defined as "physical love", "transcendent love" and "compassionate love".  Most dictionaries translate sayang as 'pity', but that completely misses the mark.  By the same token, cinta and kasih are defined as 'love', which fails to translate the more subtle aspects.

This has always been one of the more fascinating aspects of languages - the things you can and cannot say in any given language, and even more fun, the idiomatic expressions.  Even in the English language, there are so many dialectical differences that many folks can't understand each other.

For instance, in British English, you call up to someone's house and ring them on the phone, while in American English, you go over to someone's house and call them on the phone.

Back to Indonesian, it's curios how certain things are expressed.  Emotions aren't so much expressed and directed.  That's a bit of a difficult concept.  For example, in English one says, "I love you," but in Indonesian the expression is, "Aku chinta pada mu."  Translated verbatim, that is saying, "I love to you."  In fact, all emotions in Indonesian are expressed in this way, as if they are directed at someone.

In English, you can love a thing, but in Indonesian, that is a foreign idea.  You can't love ice cream in Indonesian, that would sound ridiculous.  The habit of English speakers to love just about anything seems to cheapen the word and make it pale and meaningless.  If only we had a better way to express a strong liking so we could reserve love for less trivial things.

If the English word 'love' were more powerful and meaningful, how much differently might we native speakers view the world?  How many misunderstandings in relationships might be avoided?  How much more sensitive might we be to our fellow humans?  Suppose we could express as many forms of love as Eskimos can forms of snow?

"Look, honey, I feel agape and philia for you, but the eros is missing.  Sorry."

When you learn other languages, I mean really learn them, it changes your perceptions of the world.  Suddenly, you see variety where you didn't see it before.  You acquire new ways of expressing subtleties that don't exist in your mother tongue. 

One of the handiest words I've ever learned is the German "gemütlichkeit".  Another great word is selamat, which comes from the same root as swastika.  Perhaps if more people looked up the actual meaning of swastika, the world might reclaim a great concept.

"William and Kate just had their baby!"  "Swastika!"

At any rate, just some fun things to think about.  Couldn't hurt if we added some new words to English, or at least reclaimed their original meanings.  English has never had much of a problem stealing words from other languages.  Why stop now?

Just another day-dream on the way to the slaughterhouse.