Sunday, November 6, 2011

LOVE and YOU: Two weaknesses in the English language

The incredible value of being a mother-tongue English speaker is very clear to me. i live in an international neighborhood and community in Rome, Italy where not just Italians, but also other international groups (Bangladeshis, Poles, Romanians, Turks, Arabs and Senegalesi) all make a point of speaking to me, an American expat, in English rather than the local Italian language (and most individuals of those groups with more success than the Italians!!) For these people it is deeply in their cultural, social and especially economic interests to learn to speak English fluently. Which is great, for both us and them i guess!
Over the last 6years living in Italy i have put a lot of effort into learning to speak Italian well. Today i speak Italian comfortably in most situations, though i am still shy of the term “fluent” being applied to myself. Usually i’m good to go. But i will quickly get lost in any discussion that strays from my short list of familiar subjects in that language: history, politics, art, haggling, pillow talk and combatative argument.
i have become increasingly frustrated, however, with the English language’s limited ability to adequately express two key concepts, one of which is an slight inconvenience and the other is a potentially painful flaw that is dulling and weakening our society. The poorly expressed concepts are that of “you” and that of “love.”

In Italian (and in all other Latin-based languages, i know, and in many other languages, i’ve heard) there is one word for you-singular (tu, in Italian) and another for you-plural (voi), and corresponding conjugations of all verbs to make it clear whether a “you” is singular or plural. This can be really handy:
In Italian i can say, “Do voi (you plural) want to come over for a nightcap?” and invite home a whole group of women, or i can simply pick one individual in the group and ask them, “Do tu (you singular) want to come over for a nightcap?” (this, for the curious, is what i generally find to be the more successful strategy;-) This however is a relatively small problem that we have all learned to cope with by adding in more words or context and we are actually never even aware of the issue until learning another language. Far larger and more insidious a problem is that of struggling to express love.
In Italian, “I love you,” would be translated as, “Ti amo” if and only if you are speaking to the subject of romantic love. This is the line you want to use in pillow talk. Boyfriends and girlfriends love to hear it. A guy’s buddy though would probably draw issue. For our buddies, and parents, grandparents, true friends, coworkers, teachers, students, clergy, etc., the phrase would be “Ti voglio bene.” It would generally translate into English as “I love you” but only because we wouldn’t immediately understand the sense of the literal translation, “I want you well.”
And what better expression of love? To want wellness, or what is best, for another IS love. And we should (and probably do) feel this for a wide array of people in our life. But, in America at least, how likely are you say, “I love you” to your buddies just because you want what is best for them?? Coworkers in the work place? Tell them that you want what is best for them in this language and, then immediately start looking at Employment ads, as you are likely to be fired, if not sued for sexual harassment. Surely a teacher should want what is best for their students and surely it is healthy and helpful for them to express this desire to their students (expressed in the plural, the Italian is “Vi voglio bene,” or “I want the best for you-plural” One would not generally use “Vi amo,” unless of course one were Prime Minister Berlusconi and talking to a group of under-age prostitutes – which would be especially sad if he felt that the money itself was not enough to get him laid!)
In my 6years living abroad i have come to believe that this is leaving Americans emotionally cold and gimpy. We do not express the love that we do and should have for our friends due to fears of confusion. No straight guy wants to look gay, an image easily invoked by saying “I love you” to a dude in America. Coworkers remain distanced from each other as they can never feel the warmth that is generated by the expression of appropriate, brotherly, platonic love.
We were helped perhaps by a mid-1990s commercial series for Bud Light pee. Their “I love you, man,” bits made it seem as though men could not possibly be expressing actual love for each other but were actually just uttering that phrase to gain more pee to drink. Ironically though i think a lot of people picked this up and parodied it themselves in real life moments of their life, quoting, “I love you, man” in moments when they meant the words but could hide behind the reference to the joke.
i guess that’s not a terrible step. But i wish we would all become A) more loving and B) more comfortable with our loving natures. Personally i think that i express this sentiment to some of my more comfortable friends fairly often, but even i am subject to the deeply engrained discomfort we have with expressing love in English and almost always express my love in Italian, Ti voglio bene, Vi voglio bene rather than in the dicey uncertainty of English.
This is a silly discomfort that i personally intend to continually work on. i wish you all the same sentiment. i say now “Ti amo,” i love you, to the beautiful, healthy woman who is going to be lucky enough to love me romantically, uncondtionally and enjoy my unconditional love as well ( soon as i figure out where the hell she is!). To the rest of you, “Vi voglio bene” i love you too! i love you as humans, as friends, as fellow passengers on the ride!:-)
Bud Light I love you, man commercial (i think this is the original)
Budweiser Charlton Heston I love you man 1996 Funny Commercial

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