You may have heard the adage that the Eskimos have over 300 words for snow. Spoiler alert: According to linguists, that is one big myth.* However, I kind of wish the Eskimos did have 300 words for snow because I like the idea of having many options to choose from to express ourselves. How many times do we come up empty-handed when looking for the right words? Language is quite limiting, and therapy is, essentially, putting our thoughts, experiences, and feelings into language. I often hear clients try to come up with words to describe their sensations or thoughts, “No, my stomach is not exactly grumbling… It’s not really churning… It’s like if grumbling, churning, and pinging were combined into one word.” Sometimes a thought gets turned into a feeling, “Is ‘want-to-stay’ a feeling?” However, plenty of times, through no fault of their own, clients report, “I can’t really describe it.”**
If you’ve ever spoken another language you know that not all words or ideas are translatable. For example, I recently learned that there’s a word that they use in the Congo—”ilunga”—which means “a person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time.” Just one word for that big concept! It’s likely the Congolese are more aware of this quality in a person than Americans are because they have a word for it.
What isn’t a myth is that Ancient Greek has four distinct words for love that each have different meanings: agápe, éros, philía and storgē. Loosely translated, agápe means unconditional love or sacrificial love, as opposed to éros, which is a passionate, sensual love. Philía is friendship or affectionate love—it involves loyalty to family, friends and community and is not sexual in nature. Lastly, storgē means natural affection and usually describes fond feelings within family relationships, like the feeling most parents have for their children.
So, why am I bringing all this up? My point is that English is completely inadequate to describe human experience, especially when it comes to differentiating different types of love. We can love God one moment, and love a peanut butter and jelly sandwich the next. We can love our spouse, and we can love our grandmother. We can love our best friend, and we can love her dog. We can love surfboards, and we can love traveling. We can love our favorite comedian, and love interior design. We can love a teacher, and love a particular book. It’s all the same word! How confusing is that?!
What Type of Attraction Is It, Anyways?
Speaking of love, I notice that when people have positive feelings towards someone, it’s often hard to figure out what is really going on. Is it a sexual attraction? An intellectual attraction? An energetic attraction? Is it infatuation? Or is it admiration? It could be an emotional and/or spiritual connection. What combination is it? What we know is “attraction.” Beyond that, it may be hard to distinguish differences. We may put someone in the “sexual attraction” box who really belongs in the “intellectual attraction” box. Or we may put someone in the “intellectual attraction” box who belongs in the “energetic attraction” box. Obviously, this is an extremely simplistic way of looking at things. People are generally much more complex and multi-faceted. Yet my point is, it’s not uncommon to try to make someone into something they’re not both by overlooking the details, and not really having the language for it.
What Type of Relationship Are You In?
Unless you live off the grid (in which case you wouldn’t be reading this), you’ve noticed that we have very limited language when it comes to the types of relationships we engage in. The generic “relationship status” form usually lists “single,” “married,” “divorced,” “separated” and “widowed” as the only options. When a relationship isn’t of a sexual nature, we have essentially four more words: “family member,” “acquaintance,” “friend” and “colleague.” How can all relational entities fit into one of these categories?
In fact, many of my clients’ relationships don’t fit into any of these categories. For example, what do you call it when you’ve broken up with your girlfriend/boyfriend, but you’re still occasionally having sex? Or what do you call a married couple who hasn’t had sex in years? Or a loving couple that never got married? What about polyamorous relationships? There are all sorts of moving parts in those situations. Is there a male equivalent of the word “mistress”? There is no conventional language for these relationships, and same-sex relationships have even fewer choices when it comes to describing relationship dynamics.
Creating Our Own Language
Facebook figured it out early when they added the “It’s Complicated” category to the relationship status options—the catch-all for everything that falls through the cracks. Without conventional words to describe experience, people have had to create their own references. We now have the phrases “hook-up,” “friends with benefits,” “domestic partners,” and “primary partners,” just to name a few. In the platonic world, there’s the “non-sexual crush,” or the “bromance.”
I bring this up not because I necessarily believe people want different boxes to check on the generic forms, but because people want to better understand their own experiences and have language to describe what’s going on. Part of this is wanting to know that they’re not alone if they can’t sum up their personal lives in one or two words. I am optimistic that while language definitely doesn’t adapt as quickly as society does, the language norms will change over time. And if they don’t, well, we’ll have to continue creating new vocabulary to match our circumstances.
*It turns out that in the Inuit language, the people add suffixes to words to express concepts by means of compound words, phrases, and even entire sentences. Essentially, this means that there is theoretically an endless number of combinations through sentence structure that can describe different ideas.
**Part of this is due to language’s limitations, and sometimes it’s due to the pre-verbal nature of the feeling.