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Love Languages

Image 2-16-23 at 8.31 PM.jpeg
Courtesy of Kyung Eun Lee. 

In movies, books, and real life, we’ve all encountered the classic scene when one person drops the L word. Finally, after waiting many moons for the honeymoon stage to pass, a lover professes: “I Love You.” 

Why is there always tension and suspense in these three words? What is it about this arrangement, the entanglement of “I” and “You” and the mediating “Love” in between? What does it really mean for a relationship to be defined by love? 


Why does love always seem to escape language? 

Whether it’s perceived as serendipitous or catastrophic, love is an event that transcends the discourses of everyday life. When one confesses their love to another for the first time, they’re always fascinated. Whether that’s a good or bad thing, I’m not one to say. 

But that’s why an event of love and loving can’t fit into the regular discourse of language. Love remains “horizontal” in language, as Roland Barthes states in “A Lover’s Discourse.” The horizontal arrangement forces love into a successive series of episodes, through “I,” “Love,” then “You.”

We still can’t quite make out the proper meaning of the sentence, “I love you,” but usually, we give it time, let it simmer, and we can reciprocate. 

Isn’t this exactly what happens when someone confesses their love? Everything is suspended — the beloved doesn’t know what to say because they are unsure if they’re ready to mirror their lover. They don’t know what love means. If they say it back, they’re afraid of not meaning it — or worse, meaning it, saying it, and being disappointed with a mediocre feeling. For example, in season one, episode 16 of “Gilmore Girls,” protagonist Rory goes through this exact situation when her first boyfriend, Dean, confesses his love for her. Rory can’t help but be “surprised,” and nothing else. 

It’s always made me anxious, the order of this statement. It’s as if “Love,” is a force — the only force — that keeps “I” and “You” intimately intertwined. Yet simultaneously, it’s the one thing in the world that can prevent us from coming together. It feels as though “I” and “You” could burst into flames from anxiously treading the blurry lines that are so carefully, yet carelessly, demarcated by “Love.” 


In some sense, love obtrudes and keeps us apart in order to save us from each other — isn’t it always the case that if one lets love marinate for too long, hate bubbles up, and if hate simmers long enough, it eventually boils over into an amorous love? 

When discussing “relationship” issues with a friend, she asked me, “Why would you stay friends with someone who’s only ever going to like you more than that? It’s cruel for both you and for them.” 

It’s true. Once love decides to end, there’s no way out except to look the other way. Otherwise, it can only arrive at its underside: hate. 

For some reason, though, I can’t help but still have faith in this strange thing called love. 

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There’s no other way to explain the obsession people have (and have had since the beginning of time) with love, regardless of — or maybe because of — its eternal ambiguity. 

What is love? 

Every time I feel like I’m close to understanding it, I immediately fall through the cracks of reason, suspended in thought, and placed farther away than I’ve ever been before. 

Whenever anyone speaks to me of love, they always only say, “Well, love is love!” They give concrete examples of how love is represented through “love-acts” like presents, touch, words of affirmation, and affection. Isn’t that the whole point of having “love languages”? Because we can’t speak of love or properly define it. We know immediately when it happens — that is, when we fall in love — but it’s never easy to put it into words. 

Love escapes language.

For Jean Luc-Nancy in “Shattered Love,” love is already broken in its syntactic form: “Love re-presents I to itself broken… this subject, was touched, broken into, in his subjectivity, and he is from then on, for the time of love, opened by this slice, broken or fractured, even if only slightly.” 

Rather than thinking of love as the force that breaks a person that was already whole, I like to think that it simply exaggerates an inherent split we all have in ourselves — just like when a plate shatters, there was probably an invisible crack that was already there. 

Likewise, ancient myths, from the Bible to Plato, say that man was originally made up of two of our current forms. They tell me that something happened at the beginning of time, splitting me from my original other piece. Now, I’m eternally searching for what I’ve lost. Soulmate? Mother? Daughter? Who am I looking for? Where are they? 

Other languages illustrate love differently. The first version I ever learned was in Korean: “Sa-Rang-Hae.” It’s an isolated action, and the subject-object relationship is only implied. “You” and “I” are no longer in the picture, but we are properly negated. The love story is never about us. It’s a story about love and only love in and of itself. The utterance, “Sa-Rang-Hae,” holds a greater connotation of sacrifice — belonging to a strong culture of kinship. “Sa-Rang-Hae” is used for unconditional love.

It brings me back to childhood, before I learned to say anything in the first person, before I learned to speak for myself. For me, saying “Sa-Rang-Hae” destroys the individual and gives in to universal love. 

In French, “Je t’aime” is of a different nature. Instead of “J’aime toi,” “Je t’aime” detours to the direct object, putting the subject, “Je,” and the object, “te,” in an intimate encounter. Perhaps for the French, love is more narcissistic. Lovers can’t help but trap the beloved in a space between them and love. 

I’m also tempted to see “Je t’aime” as a performance — as if a lover says, “I love you, don’t you see? I’m here. I’m you. I love for you.” It’s an excessive statement that overflows from the lack of mediation between the subject and the object. It reminds me of Paris — the city’s overabundance and over-valorization grows from the roots of its language, performing glamorous lights every night on the Eiffel tower and begging for an audience. 

There are so many ways to confess and profess love. Circling around the subject until it doesn’t seem real — a sophism that intellectuals with existential ennui created for themselves when they couldn’t figure out the actual meaning hidden under the word “Love.” 

That’s why love is cruel. We can feel it, but we can never know it. It keeps us waiting, and in the final moment when we confess our feelings for each other, it leaves us high and dry. So, I have no choice but to keep circling back until I catch the meaning of love. 

Kyung Eun Lee is a contributing writer for The Prospect at thePrince.She can be reached at or on Instagram @entertainmentkyung.

Self essays at The Prospect give our writers and guest contributors the opportunity to share their perspectives. This essay reflects the views and lived experiences of the author. If you would like to submit a Self essay, contact us at prospect[at]