Does having just one word for the unimaginably huge and complex concept of LOVE limit our ability to understand and express what it is?
The Ancient Greeks had eight separate nouns to identify the different types of love. In English, we have just one. In order to clarify the kind of love we mean, we have no choice but to clumsily bolt on adjectives (describing words), like ‘passionate love’, or ‘platonic love’, or ‘fleeting love’. This assumes that platonic love, passionate love and fleeting love all come from the same source. The adjectives simply serve as a filter: like placing coloured acetate over a bulb. But is this really how love works? Do all the different types of love we experience as human beings come from a single source, or are they different emotions entirely? Not according to the English language.
And what are the repercussions of seeing all the many different types of love as a single entity? Is love diminished every time we exclaim about how much we ‘love’ that bag, or book, or psychopathic killer series on Netflix? And don’t you sometimes wish, when you’re uttering sweet nothings to your dearly beloved, that there was a word somehow bigger than love? Shouldn’t we have a word for ‘true love’ that we keep tucked away in the crockery cupboard of our minds, waiting for the perfect occasion? The antique gilded-edged gravy boat word that’s only bought out to celebrate the rarest and purest of moments? Instead we have to reuse the same old indestructible Tesco Basics plate that we once used with our twat of an ex. We have to say things like ‘I don’t think I ever truly loved anyone until I met you’. But is that true? Do you really have the authority to decide that that past version of yourself was wrong for believing you were in love, when that was all you knew at the time?
When we see love as a consistent, single entity – we confuse and contradict ourselves. I believe love is constantly shifting and changing and that it comes from multiple, maybe limitless, sources. As we change and develop as people, so does the nature of the love we feel. Love is not a constant.
Here’s an interesting example of how the language we use changes how we visualise abstract concepts:
In English we talk about time in a horizontal way. We think of yesterday as behind us and tomorrow as ahead of us. In Mandarin time is described as being vertical. Yesterday is below us, tomorrow above. In an experiment, English speakers were told ‘the spot you’re standing in represents today. Where would you place yesterday and tomorrow?’ They would nearly always point to the left and right respectively. When Mandarin speakers were asked the same question, they would usually point up and down.
In the colossal network of objects and concepts in our brains (our map of reality), words are the signposts. They’re really bloody important. Think about all the billions of objects and colours and ideas you’ve processed in your life so far. Imagine you were just experiencing the world without catagorising anything. Your brain would be one giant junk drawer. A confusing jumble of metaphorical wires.
Margaret Atwood once said: “The Eskimos had fifty-two names for snow because it was important to them: there ought to be as many for love.”
I agree. So does Emma, my sister, whose idea this blog was. For the last few weeks she’s been working on eight illustrations representing all eight of the Ancient Greek words for love, stealing brief moments between the many, many (usually quite liquidy) tasks involved with being a parent to an 11-month-old baby.
You can see more of Emma’s work by following her illustration page on Instagram @cocorose_inthegarden.
Anyway, here are the 8 Ancient Greek words for love – still, in our opinion, quite limited, and perhaps not the most fitting words sonically. But we hope you enjoy these illustrations, and the love quotes I’ve chosen to represent each different type.
1. Eros (romantic, passionate love)
“All my blood for the sweetness of her laughter…
It’s never over,
She’s a tear that hangs inside my soul forever.
But maybe I’m just too young to keep good love
From going wrong”
– Jeff Buckley, Lover You Should Have Come Over
“And once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.”
― Haruki Murakami
2. Philia (affectionate love)
“Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.”
― Anais Nin
3. Agape (selfless, universal love)
“You are wrong if you think Joy emanates only or principally from human relationships. God has placed it all around us. It is in everything and anything we might experience. We just have to have the courage to turn against our habitual lifestyle and engage in unconventional living.”
― Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild
4. Storge (familiar love)
“The more familiar two people become, the more the language they speak together departs from that of the ordinary, dictionary-defined discourse. Familiarity creates a new language, an in-house language of intimacy that carries reference to the story the two lovers are weaving together and that cannot be readily understood by others.”
― Alain de Botton, On Love
“There is nothing like puking with somebody to make you into old friends.”
― Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
5. Mania (obsessive love)
“I looked and looked at her, and I knew, as clearly as I know that I will die, that I loved her more than anything I had ever seen or imagined on earth. She was only the dead-leaf echo of the nymphet from long ago – but I loved her, this Lolita, pale and polluted and big with another man’s child. She could fade and wither – I didn’t care. I would still go mad with tenderness at the mere sight of her face.”
― Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
6. Ludus (playful love)
“I really like you, Midori. A lot.”
“How much is a lot?”
“Like a spring bear,” I said.
“A spring bear?” Midori looked up again. “What’s that all about? A spring bear.”
“You’re walking through a field all by yourself one day in spring, and this sweet little bear cub with velvet fur and shiny little eyes comes walking along. And he says to you, “Hi, there, little lady. Want to tumble with me?’ So you and the bear cub spend the whole day in each other’s arms, tumbling down this clover-covered hill. Nice, huh?”
“Yeah. Really nice.”
“That’s how much I like you.”
― Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood
7. Pragma (enduring love)
“I, with a deeper instinct, choose a man who compels my strength, who makes enormous demands on me, who does not doubt my courage or my toughness, who does not believe me naïve or innocent, who has the courage to treat me like a woman.”
― Anaïs Nin
8. Philautia (self love)
“Every day we slaughter our finest impulses. That is why we get a heartache when we read those lines written by the hand of a master and recognize them as our own, as the tender shoots which we stifled because we lacked the faith to believe in our own powers, our own criterion of truth and beauty. Every man, when he gets quiet, when he becomes desperately honest with himself, is capable of uttering profound truths. We all derive from the same source. There is no mystery about the origin of things. We are all part of creation, all kings, all poets, all musicians; we have only to open up, only to discover what is already there.”
― Henry Miller
“And I also know how important it is in life not necessarily to be strong but to feel strong. To measure yourself at least once. To find yourself at least once in the most ancient of human conditions. Facing the blind death stone alone, with nothing to help you but your hands and your own head.”
― Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild