In English, “I love you” can have the power of a magic spell or an atomic bomb: The words can help solidify a bond or threaten to destroy it if they’re spoken too soon. In the contemporary United States, courtship is increasingly casual, which makes heartfelt confessions of love more serious than ever before.
But what if they’re expressed in two words (“te amo”) or just one (“ahibbik”)? It isn’t just a question of language, of course. Dating culture differs by geography and affects the meaning of those words. I asked literary translators and dating experts what “I love you” means all over the world. Their answers show that although love is a universal value, the words we use to express it carry vastly different meanings.
Japanese does not have a direct analogue to “I love you.” The words that get defined as “love” in dictionaries and taught that way in language courses are closer to “like” (suki) and “affection” (ai). The phrase “ai shiteiru” means something close to “I love you,” but it doesn’t function as a relationship milestone in Japanese. Most people probably hear it more often in movies than in real life. Consider “I adore you” in English — a gorgeous sentiment, but who says that? Instead of saying “I love you,” a Japanese person would be more inclined to use any number of context-driven expressions of devotion and support, like “Work sounds tough” or “I can tell how hard you’re trying” or “I support you.”
— Sam Bett, literary translator
There’s definitely less pressure around saying “I love you” in France than there is in the United States, and it usually happens much earlier. Every person and every relationship is different, but I would say that most people in France say it after about two months. Dating in France is very different from the United States. We don’t have this casual dating period when it’s okay to date several people at the same time and keep your options open. Things end up going faster because we’re all in; it’s pretty common to go on three or four dates per week with someone you just met. In France, meeting friends usually happens after a few dates and meeting the parents usually happens within one to three months.
— Adeline Bréon, dating coach
“Like” and “love” are translated into the same word in Arabic. It’s not unusual, say, for a man to court a woman with “ahibbik” during a first encounter. Here in the United States, relationships evolve from liking to loving (culminating, potentially, in commitment), but in Iraq, the progress from courtship to commitment is marked with a family visit. The man’s family meets the woman’s family to ask for her hand in marriage. The visit is a declaration of commitment by the family and the suitor. In this sense, it might be equivalent to the commitment signaled by “I love you” in America. That said, there are other ways to express deep and sincere feelings — a’shaqich (“I’m deeply in love with you”), amoot alaych (“I’m dead in love with you”). There are exceptions, of course. Since 2003, Iraqi society has been going through an identity crisis, and almost all traditional social norms are being challenged, including courtship and marriage.
— Qussay Al-Attabi, scholar of Arabic literature
As with most anything in Argentina, opinions are split as to whether “te quiero” (“I want you” or “I desire you”) or “te amo” (”I love you”) reflect a stronger commitment. “Querer” packs a punch, in tangos and in the work of Jorge Luis Borges and other poets. Both phrases could lead to wedding bells or moving in together. Getting there, however, may take as long as explaining what Peronism is, or come as quickly as a flash flood. Along the way lovers might express their emotions by saying: “Me re copás,” which loosely translates to “you absolutely fill me / take me over”; “Me va [or] me re cabe tu forma de ser,” meaning: “the way you are is my way.” More action-oriented phrases include: “Me movió la estantería” (“s/he shook my rack/bookshelf”); “Me flechó” (“her/his arrow hit the mark”); “Cada vez que la/o veo me mata” (“every time I see her/him s/he kills me”). For a soft landing, try “Me encantás” (“you enchant / charm me”). Though boring, “Estamos en sintonía” ("we are in sync”), may still work. A word of caution: If you get to “Alta onda pegamos,” meaning “we’ve hit a high vibe or wave,” chocolate and flowers may be in order.
— Saúl Sosnowski, professor of Latin American literature at the University of Maryland at College Park
In 20th-century Iran, men were generally the first to say “I love you,” and this almost always had to be followed by a promise of marriage and a formal visit to the woman’s parents to ask for her hand. In 1979, the Islamic revolution set back the clock for women. Morality police roamed the streets, punishing any public mingling of men and women who weren’t related to one another. Unless they were married or close relatives, men and women could not even stroll together. By 2009, 60 percent of Iran’s population was younger than 30, and the expression and execution of love transformed. Virginity was mocked, and “I love you” lost its holy luster. Now, saying “I love you” can also mean “I am ready to move to the next step of our relationship and sleep with you.” Among educated city dwellers, it is as commonly expressed by women as by men.
— Sholeh Wolpé, Iranian-American writer and literary translator
When dating, “wo ai ni” is the man’s signal: He wants an exclusive relationship. Before that, a woman might hold hands with him, kiss, go to the movies, go hiking, but she will generally wait for this important phrase before having sex or appearing in public as boyfriend and girlfriend. After this first “wo ai ni,” both members of a couple will probably say it to each other every day. It’s just the first time the man says it that is also his way of saying he wants to be exclusive. This relates to young people only, ages 20 to 35. Older people don’t say “wo ai ni” much at all.
— Joy Chen, dating coach and author of “Do Not Marry Before Age 30”
There’s a lot of variation, and South Korea is in a constant and rapid state of social change. But typically people don’t say “I love you” so much among husband and wife, or between parents and kids. My partner is Korean, and I rarely hear her say that to her mom or vice versa. The understanding is that the love is there; it just doesn’t need to be declared verbally the way Americans might. However over the past few decades, film and media portraying Western conventions of saying “I love you” have played a role in influencing young people’s relationships. Couples have become a lot more demonstrative about their affection. You wouldn’t have seen much hand-holding until the 1980s or 1990s, but now it’s a lot more common. It’s still relatively rare for couples of over 40 to say “I love you,” to each other, but it becomes more common below that age.
— Stephen Epstein, professor of Asian languages at Victoria University of Wellington