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In which I wonder whether there is a Chinese word that means “love”

My friend Clare shared this link on words that do not have an English equivalent.

No Chinese words I notice!

It reminded me of a conversation I had with my mum last week.  From time to time, she comes out with an obsucre Chinese proverb, and however complicated the sentiment, they are all four words long.  So she was telling me about the title of a book her uncle has written, all about growing up in China, losing his mother at an early age, the history of the large family he grew up in and his struggle to make it as an adult.

“So this title,” I say, sarcastic like, “is it four words long?”

My mum (not joking): “Yes.”

My uncle has actually had his book published, we’re not sure how, but it’s in Chinese and despite nine years of weekly weekend school and one GCSE, I can’t read Chinese at a functional level.  It’s a really difficult language.  Same goes for speaking.

Chinese readers may recognise a very old fashioned Chinese primer that we used at Chinese school, whose first four pages went “yun” (person).  “Suw” (hand).  “Yun yuw suw”.  (People have hands.)  “Yuet lurng.”  (Moon).  I’m Cantonese so these words may all sound different in different dialects.

A couple of the early lessons in this book went “Oy baba”.  “Oy mama”.  And when explaining this, our teacher said, “This is a bit like love.  But it’s not the same as love.  It also means respect, and some other things.”  In other words, it’s a word that has thousands of years of Confucian philosophy behind it.  I don’t think there is an equivalent phenomenon in English.

A friend of mine was wearing a T-shirt with the Chinese character for love, “oy”, on it.  I said, “Oh, that’s the word for love.  But it doesn’t mean exactly the same as love.”  And he said, “Some other people have said that to me too, that’s it’s like love but not the same as love.”  So I don’t think I’m the only person who thinks that the Chinese don’t have an exact word for love, as Westerners would understand it.

There is a literal translation of “I love you”, which is “Ngor oy lai”.  Which just sounds really odd to me.  You can use “oy” of third parties (as in the primer) but directly said to someone, it sounds a bit weird.  I don’t know if this is just down to cultural embarrassment or whether it’s because saying “I love you” is a Western idea that has been translated into Chinese.  I did a web search and apparently some people do say it.

Here is a more detailed description of how the younger generation are feeling the love.

(My favourite parental reaction is “Are you drunk?”)

So Chinese readers – is it odd to say “Ngor oy lai”?

Of course I have known for a long time that Chinese people can easily express their love through generosity and through food.

Here is an example of food made with love, Italian beef rolls in tomato sauce.
Our shop had steak in today!  So I knew I had to make these for dinner, having seen them earlier in the week.  However although the steak was beautiful and tender, it had a lot of white bits in that I had to cut out, so by the time my rolls had been put together with cocktail sticks, they looked like a couple of mediaeval maces, hence no picture.  But they were very tasty!  Also instead of using 2 tablespoons of egg, I just used the egg white, leaving the yolk to make some nice chocolate custard for my chocolate sponge cake.

How to make chocolate custard – enough for two lovely daughters to have a pudding each:

1 egg yolk

1 dessertspoon cocoa powder

30g sugar

100ml milk

Heat the milk and sugar until almost boiling.  While the milk is heating, whisk the egg yolk and cocoa powder together.  Now pour a tiny bit of the hot milk into the egg and cocoa and whisk in.  When the milk has been whisked in, add a little more and whisk again.  Repeat until half the milk is in the egg and cocoa.  Then tip the egg, cocoa and milk back into the milk pan and heat.  Stir until thickened.

Chocolate spongeChocolate sponge

Chocolate sponge with custard



    • I think it’s very fascinating that there is a whole layer underneath our everyday language that represents the way we have evolved as societies.
      I also think about your gadget post every time I use my whisk and think “I would not be without this!”

  1. Guess what we’re having for dessert tonight?

    I’m fascinated by the linguistics lesson. I haven’t attempted Chinese. I tried Ojibwe, which is said to be the most difficult language to learn on the planet. I learned to say, “hello,” and something like “harvest the wild rice.” But once I moved away from Wisconsin, it didn’t seem relevant any more, so I gave it up.

    If I could do anything I wanted, and didn’t have to worry about money. I’d spend a lot of time learning languages. The rest of the time, I’d be canoeing, sailing, cooking and eating.

    And I’m casting my vote for Jenny’s “things we can’t live without post.” Do it, Jenny.

  2. I enjoyed reading about language interpretation – and the complexity of the Chinese language. Of course, I liked that your post ended with steak (thanks for the link!) and chocolate (lucky two daughters!). Have a great Saturday, Denise.

  3. This is so interesting. I heard that Russian has no word for ‘privacy’. It does make you wonder what cultural differences this provokes. I doubt it means that there is no concept of privacy in Russia or love in China, just that the whole idea is fragmented into different pieces that go together with more complexity. That may well be a good thing!

  4. Interesting how some words can’t be translated. Westerners tend to make up words for categorical purposes. Maybe we’ve made up a word for love in Chinese. I used to think Hispanic was a Spanish word but it’s American and the proper title would be Latino.

    The internet is great, isn’t it? How else would I have learned what you just wrote?

  5. Great post, Denise! I struggled with Spanish in college, so I have my doubts I could ever learn such a difficult language as Chinese. I suppose I’ll be expressing love through generosity and food.
    I really enjoyed Clare’s link, thanks for sharing.

  6. I heard that Chinese is the hardest language of all to learn, is that true? I can certainly well believe it! I would be terrible at it, I studied French up to O Level standard but hardly remember anything other than the basics. You say it best Denise with your food made with love, as surely that is the best language of all 🙂

  7. Haha I guess I never thought about ‘ai’ or 爱 in that way. Every night we have our boy say ‘我爱 (wo ai) 。。。Grandpa Grandma etc’, naming really his grandparents and aunties. So I suppose that means we equate ‘ai’ with ‘love’

    • I remember learning ai ba ba and ai ma ma but it was never ai nai. But language changes all the time…

  8. I love this post! I like how you change from one topic to another, but the theme continues. As a former student of both English Language and Literature, I have always been fascinated by the language and meanings within the words. Unfortunately I too am stuck just with English, I know a bit of French, Spanish and Creole, but not enough to survive despite my best efforts. But it is fascinating to look at how similar meanings are conveyed differently in different languages and how the connotations changes as well. I guess they reflect the differences between society as a whole, perhaps the very concept of love is different in China? As you say, more focused on respect where as English love is more about emotions.. Interesting post!

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