Quote of the Day : Margaret Atwood on Love

“The Eskimos had fifty-two names for snow because it was important to them: there ought to be as many for love.” 

– Margaret Atwood

Origins of the Quote

I completely agree with the quote. Because how can we love our pizza, love our mother, love our cat and love the Divine with the same equivalency?!  Leaving the value of the word as is assumed by the listener, added by the speaker.

Margaret Atwood is one of the most revered linguists of contemporary times. She is frequently quoted and many of her quotes are published and used worldwide and. Her quotes on love and humanity are oft referenced in passages and writings for their economy of space, inversely proportionate to the meaning they hold. This particular quote on love, has found its way, on many many occasions onto social-media, and other platforms, for the sheer joy of finding a befitting piece of text, that best describes a mood.

What makes the words interesting to me, is that they touch upon the anthropological and linguistic debate that her words have sparked.

The Politics of Language

Being native Hindi speaker, growing up in a city that speaks Hindustani, one is accustomed to knowing different sets of words, their meaning, and etymology. Because yes, it is about semantics. Did you ask what exactly was Hindustani? It is an amalgam of dialects spoken in north-western India, principally Hindi and Urdu.

For example the word ‘prem’ –is strictly reserved for the love for the Divine. Appropriated in the human relations and realms, it has been relegated a synonym for love. In a similar vein, the urdu word ‘ishk’ which is reserved for the love of ‘Allah’, too has come to be a synonym.

Offering a variant, in Hindi we have ‘mamta’ with is a specific kind love, the kind a mother holds for the child. In close proximity to this word/emotion/feeling group, is ‘sneh’. It is often translated as affection, perhaps out of habit, but that is not what it is. It stands for a gentle love that is invested with sincere care and affection in it.  Although misunderstood by native speakers, ‘sneh’ bears the same weight and import as ‘mamta’. In another instance, ‘pranay’ too has fallen prey to being misunderstood, it stands for ultimate Divine love. There is a strong suggestion in ‘pranay’ for worshipful love, with a single-minded focus on the Divine.

As a philologist and a Sanskrit linguist, I would like to share here, that Sanskrit alone offers a hundred words for love. Being a patron of this ancient language, I would love for Atwood (if she isn’t already), to be introduced to the wealth of Sanskrit, and the myriad permutations and combinations it offers.

The Person Behind the Words

As an adolescent, Atwood divided her time between Toronto, her family’s primary residence, and the sparsely settled bush country of northern Canada. Her father, who was an entomologist, conducted his research there. Atwood’s love for the language started at an early age, as she began exploring with the language, writing from the age of five. She had plenty of time alone to walk, think, imagine – unhindered by the fetters of a conformed education system. Atwood would resume her writing efforts, more seriously, a decade later.

After completing her university studies at Victoria College at the University of Toronto, Atwood earned a master’s degree in English literature from Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1962. This Radcliffe girl then worked hard to make her mark in the world. She created a niche for herself in the world of writing, that she has maintained. She wrote for multiple genres, keeping her core inimitable-style intact. Personally her versatile style is what keeps me rivetted as she grapples with a range of subjects from sci-fi to historical fiction.

Some Final Thoughts

Regarding the meaning of the quote -there is some debate, about the reference. The anthropologist Franz Boas, had closely followed the life of the local Inuit people of Baffin Island, Canada. It was the late 1800s. As part of his postgraduate geography studies, Boas had gone to experience the local Inuit way of life. In his letters home, he wrote about what he ate and about his way of life.

It was also the moment that sparked a bout of cultural storytelling. Boas had remarked on the many terms the Inuit’s had for snow.

What the cynics call ‘the great Eskimo vocabulary hoax’, is in fact, a truth. The reason this language family has so many words for snow, is that of polysynthesis. ‘Polysynthesis’ means that there is a base word attached to many different suffixes which change the meaning. So, where in the English language we might have a sentence describing snow, fusional languages such as the Eskimo-Aleut family will have long, complex words. Consequently, if they don’t only have ‘50 words for snow’ – they’ll have hundreds of ways to describe it.

For the Love of Words !

Although references and discoveries regarding the words shine light on various facts, litterateur Atwood words can’t be diminished. As the world is rapidly changing – she insinuates that the emotion of ‘love’ needs to be nurtured. Love should regain its rightful place under the sun, where it belongs. If found important, there must be many ways to speak about it, write about it and engage with it. That is the key sentiment that she calls upon. Should something be held in such esteem – it would be dressed differently, would it not ?

This quote reminds me about the power and position of words, through time. They can be likened to water, holding their own truth but adapting in different circumstances. Just like ice can be in an ice cube tray or a part of glacier. Neither is wrong or right.

So what is that one emotion, or sensation, or feeling – that you wish, you had more than one word for? Think of your own language – what would you consider to be the most appropriate word for Love?

Check out our Quote of the Day archive where we bring you quotes hand picked by me, Divvya Nirula. Sharing the stories, people, moments behind the inspiration and thought provoking words.