The Language of Love and Hate

Not too long ago during one of my travels I was asked which languages I use to express anger, frustration and love. Being fluent in 2 languages and at an intermediate level in 2 others, it was an intriguing question.

The bi-lingual questioner mentioned how she enjoys cursing and expressing anger much more in Punjabi or Urdu than in English. A tri-lingual acquaintance always uses Italian for love. Everyone has their theories about the "real" mother tongue being the language one uses for strong emotion but it’s perhaps not the only factor at work.

Ask a typical Urdu/Hindi speaking desi living in America how they express love and they’re quick to point out all the endearments they use (jano, janoo, jani, even habibi/habibti) but ask them how they say "I love you" and most will admit that they use English.

Ever wonder why?

Typical desi culture is extremely inhibited in the explicit expression of love (outside of movies). Love and affection are conveyed through actions (especially related to food) but rarely through words.

Think of how much emphasis parents, aunties, uncles and elders place on eating and food. "Have more beta" "Your plate is empty" "Take some more" " I made this especially for you" "I spent hours in the kitchen making this for you" "This is your favorite food" It goes on and on, you cannot refuse without causing offense.

The other typical expression is through gifts and sacrifice. The sheer effort and the level of hardship people endure on your behalf is considered an indicator of their affection.

In terms of physical expression, children are smothered with hugs, kisses, pinches, pats and tickles but these decrease with age. Parents will only express very chaste hugs and kisses in front of their own families and kids. And yet everyone knows there is genuine, unconditional love, and sometimes suffocating possessiveness.

In a culture where it is not the norm to use language to express love, it is perhaps no wonder that when articulated, the words "I love you" slip off the tongue in English instead, a cultural ambassador for open relationships.

On the other hand, ask the same person what language they use to curse in and the answer might be very different.

To all you bi-lingual and tri-lingual readers out there, what languages do you use for anger and love? Is there a difference in your usage of Romance languages compared to Germanic languages? How much is the culture of the language a factor in your expressions?


  1. baaJune 26, 2012

    I love it to know different expressions in different languages. I don’t curse, but when I’m angry I say some stuff in English .. not out loud though šŸ™‚

    I like to express wonder in a mix of two languages, saying “holy bimbam” .. bimbam being German and meaning nothing in particular.

    For spiritual talks German is not suited at all. Or I don’t know the words. Turkish and English are the best in that case. And for wishing people good things, in times of illness and death etc, only Turkish cuts it.

    When I watch too many Hindi movies, I involuntarily add “arre yaar”s into my talking. No one else in the house understands it, but they apparently don’t care šŸ™‚
    We grew up listening but not understanding Ossetian a lot. So we are used to not understanding everything.

  2. violafurySeptember 28, 2012

    Wow. You sure can get to the point. You also reminded me of many, many happy days spent living in Dearborn, Michigan. A single, white woman, surrounded by sisters, brothers, aunties and uncles, I didn’t know I had when I first moved in. This was in 1990 and it was a grand time. Never have I felt so protected and cared for. One of my neighbors was Egyptian. Both he and his wife, who was American were finishing some kind of doctoral degrees at the University of Michigan. I was a symphony musician and kept weird hours and I would see Mikal walking their little girl in her stroller as I was leaving for morning rehearsal. Jill would be off blowing up models of battleships, I forget what her PhD was, something Engineerical, Mikal was done, just doing his thesis, so he was watching their precious girl. Anyway, one, morning, I greeted him with my usual obviousness, “Mikal! What are you up to?” He’s probably thinking, “Duh, training dolphins.” Being the ultra-kind man that he is, he says in his Mikal way, “We are only just sleep-walking.” I look in the stroller. Little one is just snoozing away. Sleep-walking indeed. That was Mikal. I had dinner with many of my Middle Eastern friends. Food was all important. Why I never got big as a house I’ll never know. They also looked out for me. There was a family that had two sons, one in Medical School, one in Dental School, and they both worked in the family’s store that was kitty-cornered to where I lived. They would come and look for me if they hadn’t seen me.

    My friends made it known that I was welcome. I reciprocated and when I left Dearborn and then Michigan, we lost touch. I was so, so very devestated after 9/11. I knew that ignorant hateful people would retaliate without ever really trying to sift through any facts or ever try to understand that Muslims are us.We all have so much in common and it’s not about jihad or hijab, or a wimple, or a wafer. It’s not about a religion. It’s about hate. That’s all it’s ever been. It’s just time to put the Muslims back in that barrel and it’s so cruel and wrong. I just weep.


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