Love Makes the World Go Round

You can tell a lot about a culture from its word for love

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It's the word I'm thinking of

Have you heard the word is love?

It's so fine, it's sunshine

It's the word, love

–Lennon & McCartney

Yes, it is, it's true. It may not be the only word, but as words go, it's the sine qua non.

Imagine yourself wandering lost and alone through a Burmese jungle when you're seized by a platoon of government soldiers on patrol. I've got just the word to save your ass: "minkochit." Means "I love you" in Burmese. Guaranteed to raise a smile, even among battle-hardened Buddhist troops on a Muslim-killing mission. The only caveat here is the "chit" part. "Minkoshit," trust me on this, will put you in a world of what it sounds like.

I've written before in these pages about my adult English as a Second Language creative writing students, who hail from about 50 countries on five continents, and who manage, week in and week out, to amaze and delight me with their heartfelt personal essays. To date, my students have taught me to say "I love you" in 17 languages and dialects.

For a while, I was greeting my wife every day in a different romantic tongue. She didn't particularly care for "minkochit" (for obvious reasons) or some of the more quizzical expressions of love, preferring the familiar French "je t'aime" or Spanish "te amo." I can understand that. They are, after all, Romance languages.

My own personal favorite word of love, however, is "valobashi"—"I love you" in Bengali, the language of my Bangladeshi students. The word is loaded with panache and has this lilt to it that just makes you feel good all over. It strongly suggests that love is one big, joyous celebration, and everyone's invited.

The other day I was buying my New York Times from a neighborhood shopkeeper whose daily countenance had up to now been decidedly dour, at least towards me. On this day I asked his country of origin.

"I'm from Bangladesh," he said, proudly.

"Ah," I replied. "Bangladesh. I teach dozens of students from there. Wonderful people. Have a nice day. Valobashi."

He looked a bit aghast, but just for a moment. Recognizing that the word of love was not meant to be taken literally, he brightened up considerably.

"Yes," he exclaimed. "Valobashi, valobashi! You have a good day, too."

Chalk one up for good cheer.

Interestingly enough, you can tell a lot about a culture from its word for love. "Valobashi," for example, is about what you'd expect from Bangladesh, a country that relies on the creative power of positive thinking as a way of dealing with the fact that in 50 years or so, its 163 million people are going to have to learn to live underwater. In this sense, I would say, though it does seem a little weird, that Bengali Muslims have a lot of Jew in them. Makes sense—we're all seeds of Abraham.

For my Arabic-speaking students—mostly from Egypt, Yemen and Morocco—the word for love is "ahebak." While it lacks the dramatic flair of its Bengali counterpart, it does capture some of the cultural essence of that region. These students are far less effusive and cheerful than those from the Asian subcontinent. For them, love is something quiet and reserved; less celebratory than sacramental. "Ahebak" seems to fit that bill quite well.

This past week in class, I learned two more ways to say "I love you": "pom ruk cung" (Thai) and "ma timilai maya garchu" (Nepalese). Not sure yet how those words of love reflect their respective cultures, but I'll figure it out eventually.

In the meantime, upon learning these lovely new words, I immediately phoned up the wife at home.

"I just called to say 'pom ruk cung,'" I said. "And I mean it from the bottom of my heart."