Saying “I Love You” – a linguistic analysis

Those of you that grew up in the sixties and seventies all know the late Leo Buscaglia, or Dr. Love, as he was affectionately called. He was very popular on the speaking circuit in the 1980 timeframe and his mantra was saying “I love you.”

Recently I came across a post on a link in Facebook (thanks, D.R.) with this eCard:

I love you

I didn’t get it. Shouting “Ich liebe dich” in German must sound terrifying and confusing to the American ear that does not know German, and I guess that’s the point. That got me thinking about saying “I love you” in English and other languages, and how it affects how we think and feel. So here is my linguistic analysis:

In America, taught by Leo Buscaglia and all other feel-good gurus, we tell each other “I love you” a lot and it means much to us. Our culture is built on those few words. We tell our children “I love you” as often as we can. I remember rubbing my kids’ backs when they were little, tucking them in, and the last words were always either “good night” or “I love you.” Taking them to school, as they jumped out of the car on the right, I’d yell after them “I love you guys!” and maybe they heard it. I meant it, though, and my relationship with my kids was built on me feeling I loved them, and them hopefully feeling it, because they heard it. That persists to this day, and many a phone call ends with “I love you.”

Same with romantic love. We have all experienced that first time when we tell a new romantic relationship “I love you.” As the relationship matures, we say it less often, but it actually means more. Sometimes we say “I love you” to remind ourselves that we make the decision to love that person, and we always feel better when we have said it. Thanks to Leo and all the self-help experts, American society is built on the words “I love you.”

This is different in other languages. “I love you” in English flows easily. It’s easily said and felt. It rolls off the tongue, and the words sound like they feel: very good.

In French, the equivalent is “je t’aime” and that, too, flows. Listen to this song, titled “je t’aime:”

Most American’s have not heard this song, but for Europeans in their fifties, which means they were 16 in the years between 1968 and 1974, every single one of them will have strong emotions about this song. This is what they played in the clubs and discos as the ultimate slow dance. There isn’t a European of that generation that didn’t make out on the dance floor, in the dark, lights flashing slowly, completely enveloped in “je t’aime.”

The point is, more than the feel-good “I love you” in English, “je t’aime” in French flows easily off the tongue, so easily that it can quickly lead to French kissing and sex. “Je t’aime” is sexual.

In Spanish, things are somewhat different. The Spanish dictionary will show “te amo” as “I love you” but a native speaker will tell you that it’s not really used to tell someone “I love you.” “Te amo” is reserved to soap operas, romance novels and generally histrionics, not real life. You don’t send your kids off to school and yell “te amo” after them. The Spanish say “te quiero” but that too does not mean quite the same thing as “I love you.” Perhaps a Spanish-speaking reader can correct me and let me know what one says to kids when tucking them in. “Te quiero” means something like “I kind of like you” and I guess that would work between horny teenagers at the disco.

In German, “I love you” is “ich liebe dich” and that is definitely not something you can say. It just does not roll of the tongue at all. Let me make a shocking statement. I spent the first 18 years of my life as a German child and teenager. Not once, ever, not one single time did my mother say “Ich liebe dich” to me. It does not work in German. And I have never said “ich liebe dich” to my parents, or to a girlfriend, or to anyone else for that matter. Germans will say “ich mag dich” or “ich hab’ dich gern.” Those things are greatly watered down from the impact of “I love you” and mean something to the effect of “I like you” or “I kind of like you.”

Truth be told, I don’t know what Germans whisper to each other in bed. But I bet it’s not “ich liebe dich.” It just does not work.

In German, when I talk to my 78-year-old mother on the telephone on her birthday, we chat about stuff like all parents and children do. When it comes to saying good-bye, neither of us can say “ich liebe dich” and we have to resort to saying “good bye” as the words and make the tone, the voice, the pitch say “I love you” without ever saying the words. And somehow, that actually works. There is a way to say “good bye” in German that has the “I love you” tone that you use with a mother, or lover, or child. Those nordics, you say!

Does the linguistic difference between English and German with respect to how we can say or can’t say “I love you” affect our relationship with our loved ones? I suspect it does. English is a much better language for loving. German may just be better for yelling.

I love you for reading this.

3 thoughts on “Saying “I Love You” – a linguistic analysis

  1. Pingback: The Languages of Love | RabbitInk

  2. Gen Rabbit

    Hi, Norbert! I’m the writer of the “Languages of Love” post (and the blogger behind RabbitIn), and I just wanted to say thanks for writing such a great, detailed post about the way “I love you” is expressed (or isn’t) in Germany and America. Definitely a great topic for Valentine’s Day!

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