I was reading the etymology of the Modern English verb 'know', when its reference to other languages motivated this question:

[...] Once widespread in Germanic, this form is now retained only in English, where however it has widespread application, covering meanings that require two or more verbs in other languages (such as German wissen, kennen, erkennen and in part können; French connaître, savoir; Latin novisse, cognoscere; Old Church Slavonic znaja, vemi). The Anglo-Saxons used two distinct words for this, witan (see wit) and cnawan. [...]

This dichotomy was inculcated in me for French and Spanish, but never explained or explored. So why was 'to know' partitioned? What's so special? Why did English evolve to unify the verb?

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    I think one is for people and the other is for knowledge/wisdom. Your examples can be divided in these two: for faces and people [re]connaître, [re]conocer, [ri]conoscere, [er]kennen[lernen]. This is an essential ability/concept in primates societies. For abilities: pouvoir, poder, potere, können, can. For knowledge: savoir, saber, sapere, wissen. English is a bit special "I know him". They come from senses because to sense is perceived as to know. Sapere = taste. Wit is to see (witness). But Greek (a language of subtleties) had many more words: εἴδω, νομίζω, γιγνώσκω, and even φρονέω. Commented Jun 4, 2015 at 4:45
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    I'm voting to close this question because historical 'why' questions aren't something linguistics can answer.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Jun 4, 2015 at 4:48
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    @curiousdannii, historical linguistics certainly attempts to describe how things evolve and therefore how they came to be the way they are. I don't know of many sciences that don't try to answer 'why' questions by the way. They're all spurred by... curiosity (itself explained by evolutionary psychology). Commented Jun 4, 2015 at 4:58
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    @curiousdannii, on the whole I agree. It's probably what the OP meant: "how did it came that in various language there are several words for to know". Another linguistics question: "could we need two words in English for why (as Germans have wieso and warrum for instance). Answer: "consequences follow causes" because time is unidirectional (don't migrate to astronomy please :-) And convergent evolution being a biology concept can very well be adapted to linguistics (and economics for that matter - since they are all driven by competition, selection and adaptation). Commented Jun 4, 2015 at 5:17
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1 Answer 1


As always, why questions are always bad questions to ask in linguistics if you're asking about some putative motivations of historical speakers. We don't have the data (with some rare exceptions like "freedom fries"). At best you can trace the historical developments within a language and note the differences between languages.

This type of difference where one language uses several words (or concepts) to apportion reality differently is so common that any individual instance is nothing more than an idle curiosity. It is one of the foundational definitions of language itself that goes back to de Saussure who talked about the net of language being cast on the amorphous sea of reality.

One of the languages that differs from English in this respect is Czech which has three verbs (Russian for instance, only has 2).

vědět - to know in general (intransitive - except it can take 'it' and 'something' as direct objects as a in 'I know it' or 'I know nothing', I know that water boils at 100 degrees C.)

znát - to know someone, some place, be cognizant of (transitive: I know Peter, I know London, I know (of) this song)

umět - to know how (I know how to swim, I know (how to play) this song)

But interestingly, the two languages meet when these verbs are nominalized. English has 'knowledge' and 'ability' and Czech has two nouns that match perfectly (or rather the two nouns derived from znát and vědět are almost perfect synonyms and the noun for ability is derived from a completely different verb).

There are also many other verbs related to knowledge - 'recognize', 'realize', 'distinguish'. While English has completely separate roots for these, in Czech, many of these are related to one of the verbs for 'to know' - 'poznat', 'uvědomit si', 'rozeznat'.

How did this happen? Or why is Czech different from a more related language like Russian? There is no sensible way to answer this. However, internalizing these differences can give you a better insight into how language works.

  • Russian also has the three: ведать, знать, уметь.
    – Anixx
    Commented Jun 4, 2015 at 9:59
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    While you can find all three in a Russian dictionary ведать is archaic and not used in modern spoken Russian. In fact, you can find знать used in a way that covers all three meanings (albeit not perfectly) in Czech. Just more example of the imperfect mapping between the two. Commented Jun 4, 2015 at 16:47
  • @Anixx Moreover, the denotation of ведать is completely contained within that of знать, making знать a viable synonym for any usage of ведать, though not vice versa; whereas vědět and znát barely intersect. Commented Jun 5, 2015 at 18:15
  • It's also notable that Slovak picked a different three-to-two reduction than Russian, and has vedieť cover both vědět and umět. Commented Jun 5, 2015 at 18:29
  • I wonder whether the three-way distinction in Czech is calqued on German (wissen – kennen – können).
    – fdb
    Commented Jun 6, 2015 at 22:42

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