Words About Love in Other Languages that Should Exist in English

These may come in handy next time emojis fail you.

by Laila Tyack
Apr 11 2017, 9:25pm

Illustration by Lucy Han

In ancient India, the architects of the Sanskrit language came up with almost 100 different words to describe various states of romance, affection and desire. The sexed-up ancient Greeks had a catalogue of at least six concepts to choose from, and the Arabs defined different forms of love through a spectrum of eleven stages.

Yet the emotionally-stunted Anglophone tradition has left us with just one catch-all term—"love"—to describe our feelings toward our mother, paramour, and cat. The following concepts from other cultural traditions may come in handy next time emojis fail you.

'Shringara'—rapture and beauty
Though not averse to some casual hanky-panky, Hindu philosophers also recognized that sex without intimacy could leave you feeling hollow (hello, Sunday morning) and so developed a vocabulary of terms for the different romantic feelings that could enrich physical union. Among these, "Shringara" suggests the enjoyment of a partner in a warm and fuzzy, long-walks-on-the-beach type atmosphere—one created through attention to charming manners, stylish dress, artistic settings, beauty and good behavior.

Read More: Why Men Fall in Love Faster Than Women

Unlike the prudish Judeo-Christian cultures of the time, the Hindus did not regard sexuality as a source of shame or sin—in fact, they actively celebrated indulging it. Literally meaning a craving for sensory objects, "kama" included any form of sensual desire, but most commonly referred to physical attraction. While Jesus was preaching to the newly converted, the Hindus were busy conducting in-depth studies of how to best spark, fulfil and maintain sexual desire, as documented in the infamous Kama Sutra. Wisely however, they also advised that the individual could not achieve a sense of wholeness through sexual acts alone (note to self).

'Atma Prena'—self love
Unlike the narcissism that is normally associated with self-love in the Western tradition, the Hindu form is a more benign and universal feeling, suggesting that beyond our individual identifying features and personal flaws, we are all one and the same. Celebrating this self-love, the Indian mystic Kabir wrote that "the river that flows in you, also flows in me," meaning that we see ourselves in others and vis-versa, so we should share the love (and think twice before swiping left?).

The river that flows in you, also flows in me.

'Hawa'—whimsical attraction
The first stage of eleven phases of love, "hawa" is basically the classical Arabic version of a crush. The word comes from the same linguistic root as the verbs to blow, to rise and to fall, suggesting the transient, fickle and flighty nature of love in its early phases. Though it has the potential to evolve in a stronger or substantial direction, "hawa" is definitely the "don't go getting attached" stage.

At the opposite end of the spectrum (after malady and enslavement, but before stage eleven—insanity) is a condition that will be familiar to the lovelorn: chaos. The term describes the point at which the heart begins to lose all sense of equilibrium or reason, and starts falling apart. It derives from the word for being intensely black or dark, and can also be used to describe an individual in a state of complete bewilderment and perplexity, unable to focus on anything. It is at the "tadleeh" stage that you start listening to Rihanna's "We Found Love."

Photo by Jovana Rikalo via Stocksy

If the UN had its own brand of love, it would be "ren". Developed by Confucius in ancient China, the term suggests the interconnectedness of human beings and has at its foundation the idea of filial piety, or duty toward one's family and society. Ren is seen as promoting social betterment and sympathy with fellow human beings and was particularly aimed at officials who Confucius claimed should integrate morality, talent, salary and status with virtue and wisdom. Good luck with that one.

'Philia'—deep friendship
We have all heard of Eros, the ancient Greeks' concept of sexual passion, but much more highly valued at the time was "philia": a more profound feeling of friendship or camaraderie. Whereas sexual passion, with all its potential for madness, was seen as dangerous, philia suggested a more stable and long-lasting relationship bonded by solidarity (typically on the battlefield), self-sacrifice, and the sharing of thoughts and emotions—and, if you were a man at the time, probably the occasional shag.

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'Pragma'—longstanding love
Despite their penchant for senseless orgies and bacchanalia, the ancient Greeks were also capable of being extremely practical. A case in point is their concept of "pragma," which describes a mature and enduring form of relationship—for example, between married couples—founded on compromise, patience and tolerance.

While many of us find our great expectations of enduring love and passion reduced to bickering over the last Nespresso capsule, the Greeks recognised that compromise, realism, understanding and effort were the foundations of any long-lasting companionship.

'Agape'—selfless love
Perhaps the most radical form of love for the ancient Greeks, "agape" is the kind of term you are likely to hear in your yoga class, meaning a selfless or universal love for humankind. The notion evolved in contrast to erotic sentiments, instead describing an application of love that was charitable, fraternal and unconditional (unless of course, you were a slave, or a woman, or black, or...).