The English Language Doesn't Understand Your Relationship


Robust as we like to think English is — it's the language we make everyone else in the world learn — it often fails us is in describing relationships. The ways in which we relate to one another romantically are changing, and our language hasn’t kept up. What do you call someone you’re sort of dating, but aren't serious about? What do you call the hookup buddy you keep on the side in your open relationship? What do you call the serious boyfriend with whom you live but to whom you aren’t married? There are so many deviations from the traditional pairings of "boyfriend/girlfriend" and "husband/wife" — even before taking into account same-sex partners — but so few words to explain those relationships, leaving us to make long, fumbling explanations.

The ever-progressive Swedish have a few pithy, non-gendered terms to describe serious relationships. "Sambo" refers to a partner with whom you cohabitate and are in a committed relationship, but to whom you aren’t married. "Särbo" describes a partner you don’t live with — including long-distance relationships — but are somewhat serious about. 

In Korean, "matseon" is an "official" blind date, arranged by a matchmaker or relative with marriage in mind. It’s not an arranged marriage, per se. It's more like when your mom keeps trying to set you up with that nice young man that works at the bank because she just knows you’ll just love him.

In Thai, "geek" (or "kik" or "gik") is used to talk about someone with whom you have a casual, open relationship. It can be a friends-with-benefits setup, or a person you have on the side, in addition to your partner: basically, a hookup buddy.

Source: XKCD.

Even the conjugation of foreign languages can say a lot about a relationship. In Korean, as in many other languages, there are formal and informal ways of addressing others. "Banmal" is informal "half speech," and "jondaemal" is polite or formal speech. The formality of the words a couple uses can indicate their romantic, emotional, and power dynamics. Within traditional couples, men often use banmal, while women use jondaemal. (The latter has no word for "you," so third person is always used when addressing your partner.)

Also, in Korean, a woman in a relationship with an older man will sometimes refer to him as "oppa." Typically, this word is what a girl calls her older brother, or an older man to whom she feels close, but it’s also employed (somewhat bizarrely) as a cutesy pet name in relationships that involve a significant age difference. Conversely, the word "noona" is used by a man for a woman who's older than him. While it conveys closeness, it’s not a counterpart to "oppa," and indicates a platonic relationship (if you call a woman a "noona," you’re basically friend-zoning her). "Dak Sal," which literally means "chicken skin," describes what happens when a couple is so annoyingly overly affectionate that it makes other people's skin crawl.

It’s also worth noting that in Chinese languages like Cantonese, Hakka, Mandarin, and Taiwanese, there are numerous words to describe familial relationships (there are individual words for your wife’s older sister, your wife's younger sister, your older brother’s wife, your younger brother’s wife, your father’s older brother’s wife — the list goes on).

The English language needs to evolve to encompass more descriptive words for the different types of relationships we have. Failing that, we might need to adopt some foreign words into our lexicon. What terms do you think we should be using? Are there other foreign words or phrases that the English language needs? Let us know in the comments below!