Whirr2005-04-05
The Semantic Overloading of Love
So, this was my contribution to our recent Symposium. Fortunately none of those present knew anything about Greek, so no one could contradict my assertions. I bet I'm wrong, but it doesn't really matter.
Upon re-reading this, I was shocked by how Whorfian it is. I was raised (academically) by Stephen Pinker, and trained to reject Whorf-Sapir... nevertheless, this essay is very Whorfian.
Essentially, in English we have a dearth of love-words. I don't mean synonyms, like affection, appreciation, lust, desire or loyalty, but honest replacements. Many times, in English, Love is the only word that really describes a feeling. Unfortunately, there are a number of vastly different feelings that can be described in that way. The feeling you have for your sister, for your sexual partner, for your dependant, for your country, and for your favorite ice cream flavor should not be described using the same word. I love working here, I'll love you 'till the day I die, give me sweet, sweet love. You can love your horse, just don't _loove_ your horse.

I'm no Greek scholar, but I understand that they have at least three distinct words for love, something English is sorely lacking. The Eskimos, of course, have well over 500 words for love, but that's a different matter. As I understand it, the Greeks have Agape, the love of humanity, phylos, the love of kin, and eros, the sensuality love (encompassing but not limited to _loove_). Each word expressing a unique emotion, and not to be confused one with the other.

While it is certainly beneficial to have multiple words to express different meanings, and prevents some confusion, the best thing is that in Greek it is that the concepts are kept distinct. It would be bad enough if English had multiple homonyms that all sounded like "love" but meant a variety of different things. What English has, however, is a single word, Love, that is terribly overloaded with multiple meanings. This is dangerous because, over time, the meanings begin to blend into one another. This leads to inferences and associations that allow quite distinct ideas to be locked together, with disastrous real-world consequences.

One meaning of love describes the intense feeling of closeness that develops between two people. The agapic love, I believe. But we also use the word to describe sexuality, erotic love, and the two distinct concepts (agape and eros) become fused into a single word. Why is it difficult for men to say that they love each other? Partially because that means "I want to have sex with you."

Love is also used to describe a sense of loyalty and duty. The phylic love for ones kin, one's dependants. The love that one would sacrifice oneself to protect. One might give one's life for one's children, even if they were too young to develop a real relationship with, for example.

But by calling this feeling "love" it now gets fused together with eros, and vice versa. How many bad marriages have been founded on the concept that sex implies duty? Worse still, how many marriages have enforced that idea that duty implies sex?

Consider the following distinct events:
  • Two people are attracted to each other, and enjoy have sex.
  • Two people get along well, and enjoy one another's company.
  • Two people combine resources, and make a commitment to living together.

Rationally, none of these three events should predict another. However the fusing of concepts in Love gives rise to the "love at first sight" myth. I see someone, and am erotically attracted. Therefore, clearly, I must have a lot in common with that person, and we are meant to become intimate friends. And so, we should get married and pledge loyalty to one another.

Jingoism is another example of agapic love, the love of one's country, being confused with phylic love, one's duty to and love of a clan. "America--love it or leave it".

Perhaps people's confusion of their love of God with their love of their partner is the reason why celibacy is so important in many religious orders? Perhaps not.

I certainly have my doubts about these Whorfian ideas, and I have other theories about why Westerners are so messed up. However you look at it, though, I propose that it certainly couldn't hurt anything if these essential ideas of Love, Respect, Honor, Desire and so on were just a little better defined and a little less confusing to everyone concerned.
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