Does ‘Love’ Mean The Same Thing In Every Language?

In the English language, ‘love’ is a catch-all term for many different kinds of feelings. This is only partly why English speakers are so comfortable slinging it around.
February 12, 2020
Does ‘Love’ Mean The Same Thing In Every Language?

If love knows no boundaries, then surely there’s no language barrier that could prevent us from being on the same page about what it means. In theory, love in different languages is still just love.

As it turns out, that’s not entirely the case. While the emotions of love are probably universal, the way we talk about them, the words we use to describe them, and the cultural mores that we filter them through are not.

Robert Johnson put it this way in The Fisher King and the Handless Maiden:

“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.”

Whether English speakers are suffering from a poverty of the heart is largely a matter of who you ask. If anything, from the perspective of other countries, the United States is neck-deep in an overflow of “love.”

That’s because “love” is a catch-all term we use to describe our feelings toward doughnuts and soulmates alike — as well as friends, family members, celebrity crushes, a GIF we saw on Twitter, and the fashion choices of someone we just shook hands with for the first time. Some say this cheapens, or devalues, the meaning of the word. Others say you can never have too much.

One study found that international students said “I love you” more frequently in English than they did in their native language, and another study found that “I love you” was expressed more often by American couples than German ones. The researchers of the latter study pointed out that aside from our tendency to use “love” to mean many different things, the United States was also shaped by the free-love hippie ideals of the 1960s and various other movements encouraging more emotional openness.

All of this fits neatly with recent research that confirmed that emotions are at once universal and expressed in ways that are highly dependent on our cultural upbringing. For the most part, every language has a built-in understanding that words associated with “joy” don’t belong in the same group as words associated with “regret,” but there are exceptions. For instance, some Austronesian languages associate “love” with “pity.” Pity the fool, for the fool is in love.

So what’s “love” got to do with it if you’re living abroad? Here’s a brief synopsis of love in different languages.

Spanish-Speaking Countries

The Spanish language contains a number of affectionate expressions, including te quiero (a more casual, friendly version of “I love you”) and te amo (a more binding form of “I love you” that’s generally reserved for passionate, romantic love).

If you wanted to actually tell someone that you desire or want them — which is how te quiero is literally translated into English — you could say te deseo. Saying te quiero to a friend is totally normal and not odd at all.

To describe your love for tacos or sangria, you would use the verb encantarse.

China

The frequent use of “I love you” in the United States is so confounding to Chinese students of English that Chinese researchers authored a study to help teachers explain the phenomenon to their English students.

“In our own experience, as teachers of English in China, we often try to avoid the explanation and practice of the locution ‘I love you’ even though it appears in the textbook we are teaching,” they wrote. “We do not want to embarrass ourselves or our students.”

The researchers went on to explain that verbalizing love can come across as “shallow and frivolous” in Chinese culture, where actions speak louder than words.

However, younger people in China are now beginning to use the phrase wo ai ni (“I love you”) more often, which is a marked shift from the more reserved wo xihuan ni (“I like you”) of older generations.

Germany

As mentioned above, science has confirmed that American couples verbalize their love more often than German ones.

The German language also possesses more varieties of romantic expression, which means the direct translation for “I love you” — Ich liebe dich — can come across as very formal or serious.

If you wanted an even more dramatic statement, you could say Du bist die Liebe meines Lebens, or “you are the love of my life.”

You can also be more casual about it and say Ich hab dich gern, which can be used for friends, relatives and inanimate objects, as well as romantic partners you’re not trying to freak out prematurely.

The Philippines

In Tagalog/Filipino, mahal kita (“I love you”) can be extended to family and friends as well as romantic partners.

While mahal translates to “love” when used as a noun, it also means “expensive” when used as an adjective (cue double entendres about love and pricey gifts).

Japan

In Japanese culture, ai shiteru is also used very conservatively, and expressions of formal love like this are generally pretty rare. If you’re going to bust this one out, it should probably only be to someone you’re seriously committed to.

One variation of this, ai shitemasu yo, is so formal that it could be read as a joke unless you were literally proposing to someone.

A more common way of expressing love in Japanese is daisuki da yo, which is a way of telling someone you really like them (and is probably equivalent to the more casual meaning of “love” in English). You can also use daisuki to express your love for pizza.

Learn another language of love.
Author Headshot
Steph Koyfman
Steph is a writer, lindy hopper, and astrologer. She’s also a language enthusiast who grew up bilingual and had an early love affair with books. She has mostly proved herself as a New Yorker, and she can introduce herself in Swedish thanks to Babbel. She also speaks Russian and Spanish, but she’s a little rusty on those fronts.
Steph is a writer, lindy hopper, and astrologer. She’s also a language enthusiast who grew up bilingual and had an early love affair with books. She has mostly proved herself as a New Yorker, and she can introduce herself in Swedish thanks to Babbel. She also speaks Russian and Spanish, but she’s a little rusty on those fronts.

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