The many languages of love

The word – and idea of – love transcends cultural, verbal borders


The air is filled with love these days.

It bedecks flower shops and hallmark cards. It’s in the songs we play on the radio. It’s Valentine’s Day, the day to celebrate love.

But what kind of love?

In one tiny packet, we squeeze a plethora of meaning. Hundreds of feelings are bound together into four letters and thrown about in different ways.

It is in the words you whisper into your lover’s ear, the words you say to your parents as you leave home for the first time, the words you say about your favourite band, and the words you read on slogans.

In other languages, love is treated differently – especially languages that are only distantly related to English. Russian and English are both part of the Indo-European family of languages (although Russian is Slavic and English is Germanic), but a language like Arabic is part of the Semitic family, and therefore has a completely different way of looking at love.

Rodica Firanescu, a professor of Arabic at Dalhousie University, said there are more than 40 words for love in Arabic, ranging from the platonic to sensual.

One, Hubb, is the generic term for love: it encompasses love for family, friends, homeland, animals and activities. Another, maHabba, indicates a charitable love for people – a kind of empathetic love.

“If a man tells you that he feels maHabba for you, you won’t be too enchanted, especially if you like him,” she said. “Because maHabba is something you can have for everybody.”

Mawadda would be the next step up. It’s a word that describes the sort of love you feel in a friendship. It is more intense than maHabba, but not sensual or romantic. It’s the sort of word, Firanescu said, that a man can use for a woman without courting her.

A word like ‘ishq, would perhaps be too inappropriate to use when talking to someone you love romantically, even though it used by Suffis to express their ardent love for Allah.

This is because it is related to the word ta‘ashshuq, which is a very sensual word for courting love and also means making love. Instead, the lover would use a word like ta‘alluq, which is more evasive.

“This is something human,” she said. “You won’t say, ‘Oh I feel a burning love for you,’ but you’ll say ‘You know the degree of esteem I have for you.’ And now you have the intonation, and you have the way you look at the person and then you have so many other ways to express.”

Words like Sabaaba – a melting love – and huyaam – a burning, thirsty love – are more sensual and intense, and might not be said directly to a lover. But that doesn’t mean they are useless words.

“Of course in poetry, all of them are used,” she said. “So if you write a piece of poetry, a man could do this. If he cannot say them directly, he just pretends ‘I wrote a … poem’ and he offers the poem. And in the poem, everything is permitted, it’s allowed.”

“Through poetry we can say everything.”

The Russian understanding of love is different from Arabic and different from English. Although the feeling of love doesn’t have the many different words that Arabic has, but it also doesn’t have the flippancy associated with the English word, Dalhousie instructor Maria Koutovenko said.

“In Russian it’s not used the same – the actual idea of it,” Koutovenko said.

“Here I see it when I walk around and I see the word love. I see it as a commercialized word here. When I think of home, I do think there is a different usage – it’s a very strong thing to say.”

For example, the McDonald’s slogan “I’m Lovin’ It” seems natural in English – the company is telling us we love the food and the experience of the restaurant. In Russian, it feels off.

It “was something not necessarily unnatural, but something that you can see immediately maybe it’s not part of our culture,” she said. The company is there, and very popular, Koutovenko said, but the use of love in the slogan is jarring.

However, Koutovenko said, those sort of cultural differences are negligible in understanding how we experience love.

“No matter how different the forms, the structures, the words, expressions,” she said. “I find that after all you always manage to track it down to the same experience that you are trying to express in words.”