I have a box that has followed me from one childhood room to the next. When I was seven, it rested under my bed. At 10, it moved into a room upstairs with me and onto a closet shelf. When I was 17, it wedged itself into a corner between my dresser and the wall. Now, it just sits on my desk in my apartment. Sometimes I’ll run my hand over it in the morning, or I’ll open it up when hit by a wave of nostalgia.
Inside it are love letters of different forms — full-length correspondences, notes scribbled on scraps of paper and cards. The letters have undoubtedly changed over the years. Elementary school valentines were ousted by notes from my high school friends. A card from my parents for my fourteenth birthday was replaced with one from my nineteenth.
They are from classmates, friends, my brothers, family, old partners and new ones. Each of these letters is signed with love, and each person who has written a note is someone I once loved, or still do, in return. Even though the love I feel for my aunt is different from the love I feel for my best friend; the love I felt for my tenth-grade boyfriend is different from the love I feel for my current one; the love I felt for my high school teammates is different than the love I feel for my older brother, I still tell them all the same thing: I love you.
But the more love I experience, the more frustrating it is to realize that it is, quite frankly, impossible to express the nuances of my love in words. We are complex enough to notice the slight differences in the love we feel for our mother versus for our father, yet our words are not complex enough to describe those feelings — at least in English.
I am not bilingual. I was raised in an English-speaking home by English-speaking parents in English-speaking cities with English-spoken “I love you’s.” But last December, at a small table in the back Chela’s on South Fifth Ave, my friend Maggie, who grew up speaking Bulgarian, raised the question between bites of her taco bowl: What if our options for saying “I love you” in our native languages affect our ability to express — or even fully feel — love?
It’s not necessarily a new question, or at least the part which posits that different languages affect how we think and act. Linguists and neuroscientists have been asking it for decades, and even though it is widely debated and hard to prove, it does have a name: linguistic relativity, or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, proposes that the language we speak fundamentally affects how we think, act and perceive the world around us.
In one famous experiment, Russian speakers and English speakers were shown multiple slides, each with three blue squares — one on top and two on the bottom, in a pyramid shape. Two of the squares were the same shade of blue, and the third was slightly different. The study found that Russian speakers were better at quickly discriminating between the two shades of blue.
This, the researchers proposed, was because Russian makes linguistic distinctions between lighter shades of blue and darker ones. Essentially, Russian speakers’ cognitive ability to identify blue was different from English speakers’ ability simply because their language has more words to categorize the color than English does.
As interesting as it is, being able to process colors a little more quickly is much different than experiencing love in an entirely different way. But the opposing view to linguistic relativity provides no more comfort: It argues that what we experience and perceive as culturally important are what we put into our language. It would mean that English speakers feel less of a need to express the nuances, emotions and complexities of love since there’s only one way to say “I love you” in English. That’s just not the case.
Actually, it seems that in the United States, love is everywhere. Another study at Baruch College interviewed dozens of people about the use of the phrase “I love you” in their various cultures and languages. Almost every subject who did not grow up with American culture — but instead with Korean, Guyanese, Romanian or Jamaican cultures, respectively — told researchers that their cultures used the term “I love you” much less often than Americans did.
The reasons they gave for not overusing the phrase were similar: Using “I love you” too often detracts from its importance; “I love you” is so meaningful that you’d only say it to someone you intend to marry; saying “I love you” before you really mean it is shallow.
The phrase is used so generously in American culture — especially when the year nears Feb. 14 — that I sometimes feel it lacks the meaning I want it to have when I say it and really, really mean it. But what does that say about our culture? Are we simply eager to love, or is the depth of our love compromised by our fervor to feel it? Are other cultures somehow more earnest in their ability to love?
Seeking to sate some of my curiosity, I spoke to a few bilingual people. The first was my former Spanish professor Wendy Gutierrez-Tashian.
Wendy is from Lima, Perú and teaches Spanish in the Residential College. The first time I met her was on the first day of my freshman year. She speaks quickly and with lots of emotion, so I have vivid memories of her giving instructions and greeting me at the speed of light in a language I couldn’t yet comprehend. I ended up making it through her Spanish class OK, and the conversation we had together in Amer’s last week was one of our first in English.
The two main love phrases in Spanish are “te quiero” and “te amo.” And although they translate pretty well to “I love you,” Wendy explained the difference to me as “te quiero” as being used more often for parents, children and friends. In contrast, she says, “For me, it’s more emotional to say ‘te amo’ because that means that I cannot love you more than that — I have reached the top of my love.”
But “te amo” is not reserved specifically for romantic relationships (although this is the context when it is most often used). Instead of being expressly romantic, Wendy told me “te amo” communicates an incredibly powerful, deep kind of love which “te quiero” does not.
She also added that “te quiero mucho,” “te quiero muchísimo,” “te amo mucho” and “te amo muchísimo” each convey varying depths and levels of love, with “te amo mucho” and “te amo muchísimo” expressing something Wendy describes as being “beyond love.”
She says these linguistic differences are apparent in behavior as well: “In Perú, it’s just normal for people to kiss when they greet but (in the United States), it’s just very subtle and transactional and it shouldn’t be like that. In Latin America it’s not like that — you see a friend and you hug, you really hug, and they don’t let you go.”
There is one culture in particular in which people show their love almost explicitly, as opposed to vocalizing it: Japanese. I talked to Engineering sophomore Kilala Ichie-Vincent. Over the past month, I’ve noticed a few things about Kilala: She likes to cook, especially with chili oil. Holding her hair back from her face are always four hair clips, which she color coordinates with a vintage sweater or a chic pair of denim cargo pants. She’s passionate about design and creation, and she’s hoping to transfer to the architecture school.
Kilala was raised by a Japanese mother and Black father in Queens, New York. She grew up speaking Japanese with her grandparents, visiting them in Tokyo and other parts of Japan, but she was always trying to balance this with being an American kid, teenager and then young adult in New York City.
She told me that there are three main ways for expressing “I love you” in Japanese: 大好き or “daisuki” is used usually only for family and friends; 好き or “suki” is akin to telling someone “I really like you”; and アイシテル or “aishiteru” is a very serious “I love you” used only with romantic partners.
But instead of expressing love through these phrases or through touch, like in Perú, Kilala told me that the way her mother and grandmother expressed their love was almost harsh compared to American parents and grandparents: “It’s a lot of loyalty to your family — I think that’s universal across all Japanese people. Your family comes first. I know my grandma sacrificed a lot for her kids, and my mom does the same thing. You sacrifice all your personal desires for the family. A lot of what my mom has put me through is so I will be a better person.”
She told me she thinks her upbringing made her more critical of love both for herself and for her potential partners. Though she described her grandmother’s and mother’s love as stoic, held in and suppressed, she also said: “It’s tough, but when you experience it, you know it’s real because they never reveal it.”
These cultural differences in expressing love affect her even now. “I really didn’t feel comfortable with (intimacy) until I recently met friends I really liked and cared about. But I still feel like I’m in a state of confusion. I’m surrounded by all these people, and for them, love makes sense, you know, intimacy makes sense, but for me, I just don’t understand and after a certain point of emotional depth, I start to get confused.”
Despite the confusion of living in a culture which openly voices “I love you” after growing up in a closed-off one, Kilala still recognizes and appreciates the profundity of love with the Japanese side of her family. “I know that my mom and grandma love me because they would sacrifice everything. It kind of does make me want to cry a little bit because I know they would sacrifice anything, do anything for me. And I grew up with that, and I saw (my mom) sacrifice her happiness and her pride for me. And that’s love to me.”
This is just a tiny peek into a few of the world’s “love languages,” but there are infinite ways to say, express and feel love. Though these peeks don’t reveal too much depth into the many layers of expressing love in Japanese-speaking and Spanish-speaking cultures, they do reveal something about American culture: We love to say “I love you,” but we have a harder time physically expressing it.
It’s hard to say whether language affects our culture or the opposite is true in the case of “I love you.” In the American case, at least, it seems like our overuse of the phrase is an earnest attempt to communicate our varied emotions: We feel all these different shades of love, yet there’s only one way for us to vocalize them. But I think more than a fault of culture, this might just be a fault of language. So often our words — whether in Spanish, Japanese, English or some other tongue — fall short of truly conveying what we feel.
This year, I've already bought a card for my boyfriend for Valentine's Day. It’s a love letter, like all the rest from my childhood collection. On the front, there is a cartoon train chugging out from the mountains. On the train, the words “LOVE EXPRESS” are photoshopped. I picked it out mostly because it made me laugh — I think it'll make him laugh too.
Inside, I wrote a quick note — nothing too sentimental or profound. This is our second Valentine's Day together — we met in Wendy’s Spanish class freshman year. And even though neither one of us is anywhere close to being bilingual, I signed it: “Te amo, te quiero, te love, Ellie.”
It seems to say more than any of those phrases could on their own.