a phonic conspiracy between the world’s languages

These are grand words; we must make sure we deserve them. Listen to them again: ‘I love you’. Subject, verb, object: the unadorned, impregnable sentence. The subject is a short word, implying the self-effacement of the lover. The verb is longer but unambiguous, a demonstrative moment as the tongue flicks anxiously away from the palate to release the vowel. The object, like the subject, has no consonants, and is attained by pushing the lips forward as if for a kiss. ‘I love you’. How serious, how weighted, how freighted it sounds.

I imagine a phonic conspiracy between the world’s languages. They make a conference decision that the phrase must always sound like something to be earned, to be striven for, to be worthy of. Ich liebe dich: a late-night, cigarette-voice whisper, with that happy rhyme of subject and object. Je t’aime: a different procedure, with the subject and object being got out of the way first, so that the long vowel of adoration can be savoured to the full. (The grammar is also one of reassurance: with the object positioned second, the beloved isn’t suddenly going to turn out to be someone different.) Ya tebya lyublyu: the object once more in consoling second position, but this time — despite the hinting rhyme of subject and object — an implication of difficult obstacles to be overcome. Ti amo: it sounds perhaps a bit too much like an apéritif, but is full of structural conviction with subject and verb, the doer and the deed, enclosed in the same word.

Forgive the amateur approach. I’ll happily hand the project over to some philanthropic foundation devoted to expanding the sum of human knowledge. Let them commission a research team to examine the phrase in all the languages of the world, to see how it varies, to discover what its sounds denote to those who hear them, to find out if the measure of happiness changes according to the richness of the phrasing. A question from the floor: are there tribes whose lexicon lacks the words I love you? Or have they all died out?

Julian Barnes, A History of the World in 10½ Chapters
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