The Eskimos have 50 words for snow. They are deeply interested in snow. Snow matters to an Eskimo. One word will describe how the snow is falling, softly, hesitantly; another tells you if it is good for sledging over.
They have one word that describes snow that is filled with holes, (like swiss cheese, though less edible).
The Siberian Russians care passionately about Reindeer. They have 180 different words that tell you everything you need to know about a reindeer and even its personality.
One describes a female reindeer with strong opinions, and is hard to handle; then there is word for the bull reindeer with just one testicle.
Of course it rather depends on how you count words and suffixes, but some linguists claim that English is the richest language in the world with a vocabulary of 500,000 words compared to German’s 135,000, and French having less than 100,000.
This came about partly because English is a composite of German, French and Latin. In which case, as we celebrate St Valentine’s day, how is it that we have only one word for love?
What is even more odd is the way that Valentines’ day, with its celebration of romantic and erotic love (two qualifying words immediately required), is linked to an Italian Christian bishop who lived in central Italy, cared for the poor (another kind of love), and was executed for the love of Jesus (and another) on February 14th, 249 A.D.
So here we have at least four different kinds of love joined together in association with a mysterious Italian martyr about whom little else is known.
There seems to have been some kind of connection with him celebrating marriages in the Roman Empire. In Roman law, Ifyou had recently married, you became exempt for a while from military service. So Valentine may have been the go-to man if you were looking to combine avoiding fighting Teutonic warriors in damp northern European forests with committing to your best woman for life.
How did the martyr bishop famous for his marriage celebrations morph into the symbol of celebration of falling in love with your ideal and idealised ‘other’? It seems it was Chaucer who helped the story along.
However it happened, so far so good. But the prominence we place on romantic love on St Valentine’s day leaves us with two problems. The first is how you stay in love when infatuation begins to fade. And the second is how we celebrate and give more emphasis to the many different kinds of love we are capable of as adult human beings?
A problem with romantic love is that it is time limited. After three years (or so) it needs to grow into something different and deeper, or else it fades and jades.
Love develops new forms and matures, and does so particularly through creating children and families.
There is the love as a parent and between parents, and then grandparents, different again After erotic, romantic love has left us so crazily infatuated with each, a new kind of love emerges, marital; it’s a bit less erotic and romantic, but just as fierce, deep and protective. But now it is focussed on the protection and nurture of children. And when the children have grown, the discovery that something even deeper has happened over the years of struggle and trust. It becomes another kind of love.
Louis de Bernieres describes it well in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin:
“That is just being “in love” which any fool can do.
Love itself is what is left over when ‘being in love’ has burned away,
And this is both an art and a fortunate accident.
Those that truly love, have roots that grow towards each other underground,
And when all the pretty blossom have fallen from their branches,
They find that they are one tree and not two.”
We have been badly served by Hollywood and pop songs. Our film culture concentrates on the first romantic hit. There is no development. Happy ever after is assumed, even though we know it is unlikely.
There are few models for this slow entwining love. Our culture has imposed a filter of sexualisation. ‘If it isn’t sexual, it isn’t love.’ Little to help us understand the gradual shift of tectonic plates together after the first earthquake; or the slow warming after the first fireworks.
There are other loves we can’t find in our dictionary, for which we don’t have other words, (with the single exception of charity usually prefaced by ‘I don’t want’); the love for the stranger, the love of the vulnerable, the compassion for the crushed, the love given freely without expecting anything in return.
For the religious and spiritual there is the gratitude for the gift of life, and the experience of forgiveness; the promise of knowing as we are known.
If we treasure love more than the Eskimos care about snow, or the Siberians value reindeer, we need a wider lexicon of love, and perhaps even a wider selection of greeting cards in memory of St Valentine, whose life stood for so many more kinds of love than we recognise. Happy Valentine’s Day!