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Word! The Language Column
Fragments and Love

Illustration: A person with cubistically superimposed eyes and an elongated speech bubble containing four hearts
The language of love is a language of expectation, of uncertainty | © Goethe-Institut e. V./Illustration: Tobias Schrank

In her final column, Jagoda Marinić delves into the special language of love and lovers, a language of expectation and uncertainty, of fragments and loose ends rather than gapless linear narratives. The language of love leaves room to find things that aren’t even there yet.

By Jagoda Marinić

One book that’s forever flitting through my mind is A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments by the eminent French philosopher and semiotician Roland Barthes. This essay revolves around the phenomenon of love: thinking about love and its fragments, thinking about it in language, in a language, which can only ever be one of many possible languages. Loving involves learning a language between two people, a self-contained vocabulary with its own special meanings. So there are scenes from a love affair that are more like a picture than words, and yet they have to be captured in a sentence, as if it were a must. Why this yearning to articulate emotion in words? And why the silence that sets in when we find this these words, as if it were a way into experience and not something produced by this experience?

Injecting words into silence

Barthes’ timeless essay showed me, in a way hardly any other books have, that we inject words into silence. Or is it the other way round: Is it the mood that suffuses the words and creates the language? A scene that still made sense back when I read the book: Staying home, in your room, because the phone might ring. Nobody walked around outside in those days with an electronic companion in their pocket that might ring or ping at any instant. Lovers’ anticipation as a speechless realm inhabited by thoughts, expectations, disappointments, questions, fears. Compounded by the silence of the telephone that refuses to ring. Would the first word uttered over the phone be different if you’d sat still there waiting for four hours instead of, say, just half an hour whilst tidying up the room? In Barthes’ book, language, love, literature is a quest. It’s about an unfulfilled space that seeks fulfilment, that endures fear, that makes disappointment, abandonment and intimacy possible. Human vulnerability becomes perceptible in words. So we need words for experience, and not experience simply to have something to articulate in words.

Lovers’ dictionary

Love also means there is doubt between me and the possible, between you and me, because our words are the same and yet different. Milan Kundera devoted a chapter of his classic novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being to the unique dictionary that forms between lovers. How do lovers put their words and meanings together to the point where they understand each other’s language? For example, one lover may see a cemetery as a tourist attraction in which to contemplate the ways in the dead are laid to rest. The other lover may see a cemetery as the place where he stood in the rain years ago watching as the body of someone he wished he’d had more time to love was lowered into the ground. Do we love something that we’ve drawn out of someone or injected into someone by understanding their language, including their extra-linguistic language? And what do we do with the words we’ve understood from someone after they’re gone?

Possibilities of the fragmentary

The language of love is a language of expectation, of uncertainty. It’s composed of fragments, even if most people persuade themselves that their lives are a continuum of stories, a linear narrative with a before and after. The fragmentary is harder to bear, and yet its loose ends allow us to keep looking for what isn’t there yet: the loving and longing, the dignity of the space between two words, between two persons.
As if there were nothing more vital than to sort fragments and, in so doing, relieve them of their fragmentariness, articles in the media and various other channels often say how people and certain moments ought to be in order to be considered normal or good. Many readers can hardly stand this endless observing, describing and analysis of relationships anymore. If someone stops sending us messages and doesn’t explain why, they’re now said to have “ghosted” us, for they’ve vanished like a ghost, as if they’d never even been there. As if an abandoned lover’s state of abandonment could be grasped by employing the word “ghosted” and as if they had no choice but to “live with it”. The one who’s left fills the silence that’s left behind by the leaving.

A language for imperfect moments

There’s a normative, categorizing language nowadays for many human conditions, occurrences and emotions. Fragments are seldom tolerated anymore. And yet, we could go about it differently. We could be like this: tenderly, tentatively searching until the unique beauty of an imperfect moment is revealed – through the language we felt compelled to look for when something wasn’t there, as if it were love.

Word! The Language Column

Our column “Word!” appears every two weeks. It is dedicated to language – as a cultural and social phenomenon. How does language develop, what attitude do authors have towards “their” language, how does language shape a society? – Changing columnists – people with a professional or other connection to language – follow their personal topics for six consecutive issues.