David Teniers depiction of Venus attempting to shark Cupid.Wikipedia

As the stress of the last week starts to ease in preparation for the holidays, I thought it might be a better idea to focus on love, rather than hatred, in this week’s column on untranslatable words. The world’s languages seem to have a particular fondness for this particular sentiment, because it seems to be one which is truly universal – whether it is found in the way you care for a close friend, or a family member, or simply a partner.

Many of you will have heard at some point in your lives that the Greeks had four words for love, but there actually seem to be around seven that were used in classical Greek to class different feelings of affection. ἔρως (transcribed in English as ‘eros’) refers to love characterised by sexual desire, whereas φιλία (transcribed in English as ‘philia’), refers to the affectionate regard one feels for a friend, brother, or other family member. στοργή (transcribed in English as ‘storge’) refers to the love and affection parents feel for their children, while ἀγάπη (transcribed in English as ‘agape’) refers to an unconditional kind of love that looks beyond the outer surface and accepts a person for who they are regardless of their imperfections and faults.

“‘Onsra’, refers to the bittersweet feeling of loving someone for the last time”

These words are the four normally named when Greek words for love are mentioned: to this we add μανία (transcribed in English as ‘mania’), which refers to an obsessive love that leads one member of the relationship into madness. They tend to see their love as something they need to survive, leading them to co-dependency, and to becoming possessive and jealous. φιλαυτία , (transcribed in English as ‘philautia’) further refers to self-love, but not in a vain or selfish kind of way – rather it refers to a healthy love for one’s own body and consciousness, and our last word for love is πράγμα (transcribed in English as ‘pragma’), an enduring love which has weathered time and place to become true harmony.

This kind of love is normally only found in married couples who have been together for many, many years, or friendships that have lasted an equal number of years. These distinctions between different kinds of affection may seem trivial at first, but ever since learning about these words, I’ve striven to look for them in everyday life – and it’s surprised me, and made me smile, to see just how many I’ve been able to find in my own life.

Another word which seems to stand in direct contrast to hatred is the Sanskrit and Pali मुदिता, transcribed in English as ‘mudita’, which refers to the act of taking pleasure in other people’s happiness – being happy because others are happy. This is sadly something a lot of us find difficult – whether you find it hard to be happy for your supervision partner because she got that internship you both applied for, or whether seeing someone else’s happiness makes you even sadder that you aren’t experiencing the same feeling.

But when you find yourself smiling because your friend just aced the essay she’s been worrying about for days, or because your big sister finally seems to have found someone who’s going to treat her right, or because that elderly couple you always see walking around always seem to have a pram and their young grandchild with them nowadays, you know that you, like most humans, are also capable of experiencing a little mudita.

Next we move further west to the Arabic language, which linguists all over the world find particularly interesting due to its use of pharyngeal consonants, a type of consonant produced at the very back of the mouth and found in very few world languages. Arabic has the lovely word ‘يقبرني’, transcribed in English as ‘ya’aburnee’, which refers to a person’s hope that they will die before their loved ones, because life without them is too difficult to bear. The word literally translates as ‘you bury me’, and happens to be both beautiful and morbid at the same time.

Although the sentiment is clearly one of deep affection and love (in any of the senses discussed earlier in reference to Greek), some might view it as somewhat selfish, due to wishing to avoid pain through dying before your loved ones, but wishing it upon them as they are forced to live life without you.

Lastly, we look at a couple of words that all-too-accurately describe the way love and relationships end up working. ‘Onsra’, which comes from the Indian language Boro, refers to the bittersweet feeling of loving someone for the last time. It’s loving your secondary school girlfriend or boyfriend over summer when you know you’ve decided to go your separate ways when university starts, or staying in a relationship that you know has an expiry date – due to fundamentally differing views about life, or the world, or the future. I think it’s safe to say that anyone who has ever broken up with anyone has felt this at some point – the sudden realisation that the relationship cannot last, and that you’re loving your partner for the very last time.


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The Italian ‘Caviolo riscaldati’ describes another all-too-familiar concept in relationships. It translates literally as ‘reheated cabbage’, and refers to attempt to start up a failed relationship or love affair once again. It’s the ‘rekindling’ of an old flame – albeit in a slightly less optimistic way, as reheated cabbage tends to be denatured, ugly and distasteful, much like how the majority of resurrected relationships turn out.

So, what has this week’s wander through the world’s languages taught us? That the word ‘love’ definitely does not mean just one thing – that it’s possible to love someone so much that you’d rather die than live life without them – and that starting failed relationships up again is likely to leave you with a bad taste in your mouth, much like reheated cabbage

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