I’m studying mandarin and know a little spanish. One of the things that stuck out to me in particular is that both languages sometimes draw semantic lines in very similar ways. In particular:

A) Both languages have a verb to be indicating some level of permanence (是/ser) and a verb to be indicating transience, location, and which can also be used to create the progressive aspect (在/estar)

B) Both languages differentiate between knowing a person (認識/conocer) and knowing information (知道/saber)

I know these languages are extremely unlikely to have influenced each other with words for such elementary concepts. But my question is: is this sort of very similar semantic slicing coincidence, or is it the result of human languages only having very limited ways to divide the concepts of “to be” and “to know”?

  • Both those are also true of Irish. B is very common in many languages – I would venture a guesstimation that it’s probably more common to have distinct words for knowing people and knowing things than to conflate them in one word. A is perhaps less common, but still by no means uncommon. An intersection of the two is hardly unexpected. Sep 17, 2021 at 15:09
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    Those similarities between Mandarin and Spanish are so trivial and commonplace that they are not worth paying attention to. There are more interesting cases: for example, in Russian, in casual speech you don't make those distinctions (just like in English), but in formal speech they're there (like in Mandarin and Spanish).
    – Yellow Sky
    Sep 17, 2021 at 19:16
  • @JanusBahsJacquet they are potentially distinct even in German, viz. kennen and können, although kennen "know" can be used for both, and können "can, be able to" is not. It should be considered that one sense of kennen can be from *g'enH, whence kinship etc., if we call paternal friends likewise uncle or Bekannter, in case it may as well be a distant relative in the extended family relationship of tribal folks. That would be an exception to the rule, indeed. A presumable relation between *g'enH and *g'neH remains alas outstanding. Also reckoning, recognize, eg
    – vectory
    Sep 18, 2021 at 4:29
  • @BreakingBioinformatics let me guess, are you a native Spanish speaker? Portuguese is somewhat more prominent in the recent history of China, mind.
    – vectory
    Sep 18, 2021 at 4:32
  • @vectory B is definitely distinct in German (kennen vs wissen), but A isn’t (sein for both). I doubt the asker is a native Spanish speaker, since the question states they know a little Spanish. Sep 18, 2021 at 9:21

1 Answer 1


Both of these distinctions are pretty common cross-linguistically. Why that is is hard to say, but the difference between having a property, and being in a state is a pretty natural distinction to make.

Likewise knowing a fact and a person are actually quite different. When we say we know someone, we usually tend to mean several things at once: that we know they exist, and likely what they look like, and that we have a good understanding of who they are as a person, that we can predict reasonably well how they might react to certain situations, what they might like, what they might dislike etc. Compared to simple possession of a fact, knowing a person is a much more complicated process so splitting it off into a separate verb is pretty natural.

So that probably comes under there being limited ways of dividing the concepts of "be" and "know", provided we specify that those divisions have to be in some sense natural (e.g. one could divide "know" into separate verbs depending on the hair colour of the subject, obviously this is an entirely unnatural way to split the semantic field, but it is still a possible way to do it).

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