What does the language of love tell us about national character. Do Italians really love you more?

“I love you”: English puts the lover first, as do the Germanic languages. It’s love itself that stands between the loving “I” and the object of her desire, separating the lover from the beloved.

French brings them closer together, but almost smothers the beloved “you” in the very act of loving: “Je t’aime”. Something similar happens in Italian, but here the beloved takes priority, whereas the lover disappears entirely inside the verb: “Ti amo”. Spanish does that too, but stakes a bolder claim: “Te quiero” – not just love, but want. Even within Europe, we don’t speak the same language when we are in love.

But, I hear you protest. Love transcends all barriers, all boundaries. The language of the heart is universal, and as for the rest … surely body language is all you need to communicate with a lover.

Maybe so. But love is more than red roses for breakfast and fun and games in the bedroom. Falling in love with somebody from another country may mean a lifetime of compromises and sacrifices – some small, some huge. Twisting your tongue on unpronounceable words. Foregoing the simple pleasure of eavesdropping on strangers on public transport. Having to spell your name every time you order a takeaway. Giving up career prospects to become a second-class citizen, a non-native speaker, a person who doesn’t belong. Raising your children in a culture and a language that will always be foreign to you. Not sharing your partner’s childhood memories of favourite TV programmes and ice-cream treats. Lying in each other’s arms, yet dreaming in different languages. It may well mean getting married long before you feel ready, just so the competent authorities will allow you to stay together – an option that is still denied to gay and lesbian couples in many parts of the world.

Still, whether it’s the thrill of the exotic, the delight in discovering how much stronger the bonds of our shared humanity are than the differences between our individual backgrounds, or the easy availability of cheap air travel  – in our globalised world, there is an growing trend towards cross-cultural love. Every year, an estimated 350,000 “cross-border marriages” take place in the European Union alone; in Germany, they accounted for 11.5 per cent of all marriages solemnised in 2010. According to a more recent poll, the number of people in transnational relationships among the staff of Wolfestone Translation is closer to 40 per cent. Und das ist gut so, as we say in Berlin.

It’s certainly good news for the translation industry: The paperwork involved in following your heart to another country keeps Wolfestone’s Certificates team busy; from birth certificates to school records, academic transcripts and qualifications, from professional references to bank statements, criminal record checks and certificates of no objection.

Love without obstacles would be about as exciting as a British summer without flash flooding, after all. And if it doesn’t work out…Wolfestone can translate divorce papers, too.

 

SILKE LUEHRMANN

 

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  • Do we think the expressions of love discussed above say something about national character? Does the linguistic sublimation of the lover in Italian and Spanish suggest their passion is so ardent that they are completely consumed by it, in a way that other nationalities might not be? I’m not a linguist and I’ve never lived in Italy or Spain, so I’m not sure I’m qualified to judge. What I can say for certain, though, is that this is the best article I’ve ever read.

  • Silke Lührmann

    The French philosopher Alain Badiou claims that the declaration of love (in any language) “marks the transition from chance to destiny” (“La déclaration d’amour est le passage du hasard au destin”). In that sense, what matters is the speech act as such, rather than the actual wording, and cultural or linguistic differences don’t come into it. But in a recent Guardian interview (http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2012/may/18/alain-badiou-life-in-writing), Badiou added that “love is both an encounter and a construction. You have to resolve the problems in love – live together or not, to have a child or not, what one does in the evening.” I think it’s at precisely this point – when we’re trying to “resolve the problems in love” – that something like “national character” (for want of a less politically loaded expression) starts to make a difference.

  • Love ain’t nothing but a four-letter word, right? I really enjoyed reading those philosophical and grammatical reflections about love sans frontieres. Furthermore, cross-national wedding ceremonies are a good opportunity for interpreters to demonstrate their skills. Keep on writing Silke!

  • KS

    The reason that you becomes before anything else in Italian is because they have a tendency to cut out the pronoun… ti amo is actually short for “IO ti amo” which means it’s more like the French… I you love.