Emotive Language and the Limitations of English Phrases
I am a person who loves words. A “logophile“, if you will, (or “lexophile”, if you are like me and prefer Latin instead of Greek roots for your terminology). I am also a monolingual person, having never successfully learned a second language (although I’ve dabbled in both French and German, both were learned solely because of school requirements and promptly forgotten afterwards). As a writer, a poet, and a lover of communication in all its forms, I enjoy finding the exact words and phrases that express what’s in my mind.
It is, therefore, a genuinely distressing experience when I find myself in situations where words, quite simply, fail me.
The English language has a lot of words (it’s been argued that English has the “most” words of any language, but such claims are hard to verify), due largely to the fact that English includes many assimilated words “borrowed” from other languages. It is spoken all over the world — it is the third most common “first language” (after Mandarin and Spanish), and is the most popular “second language” for people to learn. Much of globalized business and politics is conducted in English, so it’s a language rich in legalese and very specific terminologies.
Where English tends to be lacking, though, is in emotive and expressive words. We can describe in great detail an object, a person, a place, an event: something concrete and tangible. We understand the nuanced difference between something that is “big”, “huge”, “enormous”, or “gargantuan”. But when it comes to describing our feelings, we’re really not that great at it. We stumble over our words. We say things that we don’t really mean, and we misunderstand one another.
Take “love”, for example. We love our families. We love our romantic partners. We love our children. We love our pets. We love a great piece of art, or a hockey team, or a delicious meal. And there are a lot of different things that we mean when we say the words “I love”. There are people who refuse to say “the L word” for fear of diluting its “deeper” meaning, while there are others who use it almost constantly to describe most any positive feeling. And there are all sorts of qualifying words that we add to “love”, in an attempt to further define it: “platonic love”, “fraternal love”, “romantic love”, “true love”, “puppy love”. Sex is often referred to as “making love”. And we, as a society, tend to see love as some sort of unexplainable, mystical force: you can “fall into” or “fall out of” love, or be struck by “love at first sight”, as if it’s all being done by some outside force or by “fate”. We are confused by love, and afraid of it, and yet we seek it as some sort of ultimate fulfillment in life. “All You Need is Love”, and “Love Conquers All”.
We are also terrible, in English, at describing sorrowful emotions. I recently went through a loss — my bearded dragon, Ziggy Stardust, unexpectedly passed away. And while I spent a few days randomly bursting into tears at work, and being unable to even look at his empty, lonely terrarium, and feeling otherwise terrible in my grief (not least because his death was unexpected and the cause undetermined, so despite my proper husbandry practices I can’t help but worry that I may have missed a sign or done something wrong), I had a lot of trouble putting those awful feelings into words. The best that I could come up with was “I’m sad”, and that of course does nothing to really describe the way I felt.
At the same time, it’s hard to properly express empathy for another person when they are experiencing grief or other negative emotions. Saying “I’m sorry” is the socially accepted response, but it certainly doesn’t seem like the proper thing … “I’m sorry” is generally an expression of regret for a mistake or a fault, or a request for forgiveness, and isn’t truly descriptive of the empathetic feeling of sorrow you have when a friend or loved one is experiencing grief. And yet, to go into a long explanation of your own feelings and emotions at a time when someone else is already feeling sorrow: well, that just seems selfish and self-absorbed, doesn’t it? So we resort to the socially-appropriate thing and say “I’m sorry for your loss”, and hope that it gets the right feeling across.
I’m not really sure what the solution is to our lack of emotive words. There are people who are trying to bring the various Greek terms for “love” into common parlance — agape for the “pure” or “ideal” love between romantic partners, eros for “passionate” sexual love, philia for the platonic love felt for friends, storge for the filial affection felt within families, and xenia for the ritual “love” between a host and their guest (something that’s not as relevant today, but was a foundational element of the Greek culture). But getting people to accept new terminology is not exactly an easy thing, and it’s likely to cause just as much confusion as it solves. In addition, there’s the fact that many Westerners (and especially North Americans) are very uncomfortable with talking about emotions. Displays of extreme emotion, whether happy or sad, are often seen as inappropriate or ridiculous, and discussing one’s “feelings” is a thing that’s often sneered at. We prefer to keep emotions bottled-up and private, and so communicating them is not a high priority for many people.
I just wish I had the words to always say just what I feel.