You can blame Athena Andreadis – aka @AthenaHelivoy – for this unscheduled blog post. Oh what the hell, nearly all my blog posts are unscheduled! 🙂 But for this one, I’d read a tweet of Athena’s where she had said, in response to another conversation: “English is pitifully sparse in endearments. Most tongues I know say “my soul/light/songbird/heart…”
And I have lots of feels on that topic, and now have the excuse to talk about it. The fact that I’ve been working on a novel that contains a strong romantic element has only encouraged me in this regard. Names, vocabulary and language being used to express feelings that are so strong they become well nigh inexpressible…ah yes!
First, where I’m coming from on this: there are two languages that go back to my childhood: English, my mother tongue, and Irish, which is taught to all children in the Republic of Ireland from a young age. These are two very different languages in their philosophy towards endearments. Athena correctly says that English has a paucity of endearments. Irish, on the other hand, has loads and loads and loads: grá mo chroí, spéirbhean, a mhúirnín, a stór, etc. etc. Love poetry in Irish, though generally miserable as hell, is slightly more successful than English because its rhythms are incantatory and anapaestic. It’s a beautiful, resonant language in poetry.
So does that mean the Irish language is more romantic? Only if you find romance in utter obfuscation and lack of straightforwardness. Irish does not allow me to say I love you. It permits I have a love for you which, if I may sound British for a moment, sounds like Terribly Poor Stuff to me. I can then say I have a great love for you, or I have an overpowering love for you, if I’m particularly smitten with a Gaelic-speaking gentleman. But the bit where I assume agency for my feelings, that bare, unadorned nominative I is never reached. Similarly, I cannot say I failed – the literal translation is “it failed on me”. Suddenly the Celtic Tiger crash becomes clear. We once spoke a Peter Pan language, and we haven’t quite shaken it off.
So, that’s Irish. What about English? It is true that we have the opposite problem there. The magnitude of what I must confess to my Anglo-Saxon beloved is considerably greater, hence more risk. Hence, if I may be so bold, the stiff upper lip stereotype! I saw Parade’s End on BBC a few years back and was touched by the scene between the unhappily married, repressed Tietjens and the suffragette Valentine Wannop. There is an understanding between them, but every time he means “love”, he says “respect” (with an appropriately wobbling lower lip Cumberbatch stylee) and then when he can’t quite repress his feelings, he blurts out “Dear – ” and leaves it there and God your heart goes out to him.
In fact I think in English the power is in the repression rather than the expression. In Jane Eyre, Rochester piles on the endearments – fairy, elf, strange unearthly thing, et al (Good job he doesn’t speak any Irish or we’d be here all night!) but aren’t we straight ladies all more likely to catch our breath when he looks meaningfully at Jane and says “Goodnight my – ” and STOPS THERE, yes? And then there’s the whole big deal about switching from last name to first. Names were a big romantic thing then.
I used to think that “love” was an irritatingly vague term and that a language like Greek defined it better. However I have been reliably informed that in spite of having agape, eros, philos and storge, the same romantic misunderstandings happen in Greece as anywhere else! Which makes me think that in spite of what I’ve just written, maybe these spaces between the spaces are universal everywhere, especially when it comes to love. And I do love when the same word means something else in different languages. Cara means, I believe, “dear” in Italian and is used in affection; in Irish it means “friend” and is used as a salutation on letters from the Revenue Commissioners.
What about you – what terms of endearment do you like?