Language Lens

A blog about life, discovery and culture through the lens of language and linguistics.

Love without translation, literally

Classes with students today were very entertaining.  Some truly enjoy Valentine’s Day and others think it’s an excuse to buy, or consume.  Personally my favorite quote of the day was the following:

  • “I don’t celebrate Valentine’s Day, because I think it’s a bullshit fest.”

Call it a bullshit fest, a day of romance or a Hallmark Holiday; everyone has an opinion.  For those of you are down on your luck, read this from the Thought Catalogue some perspective: 35 Things Worse than Being Single on Valentine’s Day.  And maybe, just maybe, you’ll agree that getting kicked in the face by a goat (19) is worse.

  • How do you tell a significant other you love them in English? –>  “I love you.”
  • How do you tell a family member? –> Certainly “I love you.”
  • How do you tell a friend? –> “I love you.” (Maybe I love ya or Love ya)


But what’s the difference many Spanish speaking friends have asked me?  How do you express the different kind of love, as in romantic love?  The answer is that you know by context or the tone of voice, or maybe if someone says they are “in love with you,” which is more similar to the second Spanish option that is to come.

Spanish has a few ways to express this you see: “Te quiero” (to family, significant others, or friends) and then “Te amo” (which is only for a lover.)  So with having different words, it’s more clear than in English.  I agree.  Some even argue that we overuse “I love you” in English.  Puede ser (maybe).  In the end it all translates, however, to “I love you.”

In some other languages there are ways of expressing love that do not translate at all into English, and if they did it would be by many words or a phrase, rather than in one word.  The Huffington Post put together a fascinating list just in time for Valentine’s Day!

  1. Mamihlapinatapai (Yaghan language of Tierra del Fuego) — It describes a look shared when two people are both waiting for the other to make the next move. As long as no one caves in, it can be an endless source of sexual tension.  (Potential English equivalent: sexual tension rising.)  And, can someone please tell me how you’d pronounce this?)
  2. Retrouvailles (French) — Literally translated as “rediscovery,” is the happiness a couple experiences of meeting again, after a long separation. Long-distance relationships really could not survive without this and when or if too much time passes, this could mean regret. (Potential English equivalent: reigniting the flame, or on the contrary, letting the flame go out.)
  3. Koi No Yokan (Japanese) — Not exactly the same as love at first sight (amor a primera vista), koi no yokan is the feeling you get when you meet someone where you feel that love could be possible, in time. (Potential English equivalent: Feeling a spark.)
  4. Onsra (Boro language of India) — There are several ways to love in Boro, and onsra is the bittersweet term for “to love for the last time.” (Potential English equivalent: Last love.)
  5. Ya’aburnee (Arabic) — The literal translation is “you bury me,” which basically is saying that you can’t imagine life without them.  (Potential English equivalent: I’d die without you./I cant’ live without you.)

And that’s all folks.  Happy Valentine’s Day!/Feliz Día de San Valentín!

Other Valentine’s related posts:

History of Valentine’s Day

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