No emotion, surely, is as cherished and sought after as love. Yet on occasions such as Valentine’s day, we can often be misled into thinking that it consists solely in the swooning, star-crossed romance of falling deeply “in love”. But on reflection, love is far more complex. Indeed, arguably no word covers a wider range of feelings and experiences than love.
So how can we ever define what love really is? In my new study, published in the Journal for the Theory of Social Analysis, I’ve made a start by searching the world’s languages for words relating to love that don’t exist in English.
Most of us use the word love fairly liberally. I use it for the deep ardour, care and respect I have for my wife. But I will also call upon it to describe the unshakeable bonds of kinship and history I share with my family, and the connections and allegiances I have with close friends. I’ll even use it in relation to our cheeky dog Daisy, the music of Tom Waits, Sunday morning lie ins and many other things.
Clearly, whatever love is, it spans a great deal of emotional and experiential territory. Needless to say, I’m not the first to notice this. For instance, in the 1970s, the psychologist John Lee identified six different “styles” of love. He did so by studying other languages, in particular the classical lexicons of Greek and Latin, which boast a wealth of precise words describing specific kinds of love.
Lee identified three primary forms of love. “Eros” denotes passion and desire, “ludus” refers to flirtatious, playful affection, and “storgē” describes familial or companionate bonds of care. He then paired these primary forms to produce three secondary forms: ludus plus storgē creates “pragma”, a rational, sensible long-term accommodation. However, eros combined with ludus generates “mania”, signifying possessive, dependent, or troubled intimacies, while eros and storgē form the charitable, selfless compassion of “agápē”.
This analysis seems like a good start, but an incomplete one. After all, it mostly just concerns romantic partnerships, and doesn’t account for many of the feelings that fall within the ambit of love.
Read more: The Conversation