The language of love. Meeting with linguist Julie Neveux
In honor of Valentine's Day, linguist Julie Neveux deciphers and analyzes the language of love from the famous "love at first sight" to the decisive injunction "we have to talk".
In 2022, you published Le Langage de l'amour (The Language of Love). Why did you choose to write about a subject as universal and elusive as love?
Julie Neveux : Emotions and their expression have always been of great interest to me, and expressivity, that is, the way in which language manifests these emotions, naturally became my object of work. Love, which is made up of so many emotions (tenderness, fear, nostalgia, etc.) is therefore the best subject! But it is over the long term that this emotional palette is shows its variations, when our love stories are inscribed in the duration.
I like to think about the language that is really spoken by everyone, in real life, how we address the person we love at the beginning of love, and at the end, when it is no longer the same. I like to practice everyday linguistics.
How did you work to write this book?
When I started writing, I had my four main phrases of the language of love in mind, like a linguistic cycle of love. I also had metaphors that I wanted to deal with absolutely, like sun and shadow, expressions like "falling" in love, remarks that I had been writing down for years in my little notebooks, like our tendency to over-interpret signs at the beginning of our stories, to turn chance into fate, for example.
It was theoretical, too much so. And as I wrote, I felt the need to give examples, more and more embodied, always with the same couple, Juliet and Romeo. These examples ended up giving shape to a fiction that helps, I hope, to understand the nuances of meaning, which are never more perceptible than in context. The first "I love you" has nothing to do, for example, with an "I love you" of the couple's daily life, that one launches in the morning while leaving for work, and even less with a desperate "I love you" that means "don't leave me".
Finally, especially for pleasure, as a tribute to our collective culture, I have taken from films, songs, books, so that each and everyone can say to themselves "oh yes, it's crazy, I know", can have a pleasure of recognition, or discovery.
Why are emotions so difficult to express?
J. N.: Because they are an intimate and disturbing experience. A complex and unique experience for each of us, which is first manifested through the body. I blush, I cry, I sweat, my heart beats faster. My experience of love is not exactly your experience of love. The primary expressiveness is bodily. And language is not immediately compatible with strong emotion. Words escape us, they betray us. Expressing one's emotions is always like a re-examination of oneself, a necessary enlightenment, especially if one wants to share this emotion.
To name emotions is also to better recognize them. How does language effect emotion?
J. N.: Before we name them, emotions are not categorized. They are an experience, which can be chaotic. What do I feel, is it regret? Nostalgia? Disappointment? Melancholy? Fear? Envy? Jealousy? Language helps to understand our emotional life, it organizes it. And it is only when a feeling is identified by the lexicon that it can be addressed to the other, as a proposal to share, or even just the beginning of a conversation.
In your book, you identify four phases of love language. Can you describe them in a few words?
The love-fantasy is the moment that follows the meeting, it is the launching of the narrative scheme, of the love "story", that one tells to oneself and to others. We hardly know the other, so our imagination works, we dream, we crystallize. Our impulses are poetic.
The language of the love-fusion consecrates the entry in the intimate and physical knowledge of the other, on which we begin perhaps to depend. It is the birth of the minimal erotic dialogue you and me, but also of the performative dialogue of "I love you", which is the founding of the metaphysics of the couple. Our metaphorical capacity is in full swing, between dazzling sun and lurking shadows.
The love-appropriation, which is the daily life of many couples, reshapes the most the language, in particular in our way of addressing the other, which becomes our "darling", our "doudou", our thing, the official or dreamy names make place to a common language, the poetic impulses to the more prosaic conversations.
Finally, in the frozen love, the language enters in crisis, in loop. It is used henceforth to accuse, characterize and compare ("you are like this, like that"), it reduces the identities of the partners who exhaust themselves to play always the same roles, to exchange always the same lines, on what became their "scene" of household.
But these four phases reflect in fact above all four ways of living one's love story through language; they can very well coexist.
At the beginning of a relationship, we tend to over-interpret the signs. Why do we need to summon fate so much?
J. N.: My hypothesis is that love being a feeling that by its very nature destabilizes and surprises us, as Marivaux so well shows, we need to regain control over the course of our lives by telling ourselves the love story. The beginning, which is in reality the fact of chance, of contingency, is the moment of the story that is weighted with the greatest narrative legitimacy. It is made necessary. It founds the mythology of the couple. And this is how we find the lexicon of destiny, of finality, in the stories of our encounters: we were "made" to meet, it was "written in the stars.”
According to you, exchanges at the time of new technologies would increase the part of fantasy and illusion of knowledge of the other at the beginning of the relationship. Why do you think this is? And how to avoid it?
It is the temporality and the nature of our exchanges that are modified by these new modes of communication. In a few hours or a few days of excited text messages, we have the illusion that we know someone intimately, that he or she has revealed himself or herself, all the more easily because it is in writing. But what we write is only a tiny part of ourselves! It is the playful, sexy self, a narrative identity that one chooses to "reveal" in order to be desirable. We don't say the same thing to someone when they are standing in front of us, with their body, their sensitivity, their complexity, the silent, raw thickness of their being. An interaction in writing offers a form of communion, certainly, but it does not predict what an interaction in real life will be.
To avoid being disappointed or loving in a vacuum, it's easy, just see each other in real life! Talk to each other in real life! Write a lot, see each other, talk to each other, write a lot! Let life come and nourish language, which in turn comes and nourishes life.
These SMS communications also create a dependency phenomenon, don't they?
J. N.: Yes, that's another risk of our hypercommunication, we can be mistaken: we can believe that we love someone madly because we are constantly exchanging messages, that the rhythm of messages from this person has created an addiction. Whereas it is the medium (its capacity to inscribe the high frequency of the communication in the continuity of our lives) which is largely at the origin of the love excitement.
How do words wear out and how can we give them meaning in the face of everyday life?
Words wear out, that's the nature of language. Especially when they are expressive, because expressiveness requires rarity to have an effect, hence the waltz of words among the youngest to say that it's just "great", "too good", "serious ouf", "too stylish". But there is two pieces of good news: the fundamentals of love resist all the wear and tear of time. The first "I love you" still has an infinite effect!
And then, in each and every one of us, there is an intimate and collective encyclopedia, a precious reservoir of language, which only asks to be mobilized to make metaphors and sparks, to "light the fire", to create love. All we need to do is to remain open to the other person, to his or her difference, to the effect he or she has on us, and to take a little time.