GN Focus | Valentine's Day

For the love of words

Languages conspire to make the world a romantic fool’s paradise — or hell, as the case may be

  • By Shalini Seth | Specialist Writer
  • Published: 03:00 February 7, 2013
  • GN Focus

  • Image Credit: Corbis
  • Shi nian xiū de tong chuan du, bai nian xiū de gong zhěn mian, a Chinese proverb, says it takes a 100 years to bring two people to rest their heads on the same pillow

Expressing love in different languages need not be limited to trying out variations of “I love you” and coming up with the standard Ti Amo or Je t’aime. Instead, a cursory look at words articulating relationships in different languages shows that no emotion is so alien or so unique that there is no word for it.

Ever looked across the room and felt that instant connection? Mamihlapinatapei, a word in Yaghan — one of the indigenous languages of Tierra del Fuego in South America — refers to the quiet yet meaningful look shared by two people waiting for the other to initiate something. The Japanese match it with koi no yokan, the inevitability of it all, or the sense upon first meeting someone that the two of you are going to fall in love.

Hopefully, it is not all in your head and it will lead to what the Norwegians call forelsket, meaning the euphoria of new love. If you are the expressive sort, you might be suffering from a case of gigil (pronounced gheegle), which is Tagalog for the urge to pinch or squeeze something that is unbearably cute.

If you were Chinese, you would probably tell your friends about the yuanfen at work, which refers to a binding force that brings the two of you together, akin to Carl Jung’s concept of synchronicity.

At times like this, even the simple act of running your finger through his hair, or cafuné as it’s referred to in Brazilian Portuguese, can acquire extraordinary tenderness. No one does it better than a loved one, since, as the Greeks would say, it is done with meraki — putting something of yourself in what you are doing. Enough to make someone amadán do ghrá, or crazy in love, according to the Irish.

Extremes of love allow for extreme expression. Ya’aburnee, we are told, is what women say when they feel a lot of love for you. Designed to make a man’s heart swell, the Arabic word translates as ‘you bury me’,a declaration that she would like to die before the paramour.

True love, some say, is when you are comfortable enough to say anything. If you have enough nunchi, Korean for the subtle art of listening and gauging another’s mood, you may find out about the strange tendencies of your loved one. How would you feel, for instance, if he revealed that he was a physiggoomai, the ancient Greek term for someone excited by garlic?

If that puts you off, there are several variations of it’s-not-you that you can use to let them down gently. The Chinese, who talk about yuanfen, also say yǒu yuán wú fèn, meaning fate sans destiny, referring to couples who find each other, as if by fate, but do not, for some reason, stay together.

Still, the moral of the story is that it’s all worth it. Shí nián xiū dé tóng chuán dù, bǎi nián xiū dé gòng zhěn mián, a Chinese proverb marrying destiny with karma, says that it takes ten years of meditation/good deeds to bring two people to cross a river in the same ferry, and a 100 years to bring two people to rest their heads on the same pillow.

Love, actually

UK-based author, Adam Jacot de Boinod, put together words from 300 languages in his book I Never Knew There Was a Word for It a couple of years ago. Several of these words are about love, lust and connections.

Layogenic: Filipinos, with a penchant for combining English with Tagalog, have coined the term with layo, which means far, and genic, borrowed from photogenic, to refer to a person who 
only looks attractive from 
a distance.

Tantenverfuhrer: We haven’t discovered any term that denotes the reverse, but this is German for an aunt-seducer or someone with suspiciously good manners.

Ilunga: In Bantu, this is about three levels of tolerance, essential when we love human beings with their imperfections, but still within limit.

Saudade: In Portuguese 
this encapsulates the love that remains when someone is gone, even if he is right there around you. The Welsh word hiraeth comes close in meaning. Brazil actually celebrates a day of saudade on January 30.

Särbo: In Swedish, this refers to two people who are together but live apart, like a girlfriend or a boyfriend, only better.

— S.S.

GN Focus