Wednesday, September 30, 2009

On Language: Knowledge

One of the great aspects of understanding more than one language is that you get to overcome some of the weaknesses contained in any one language. Every language is basically a new way of looking at things… of thinking.

One area where English has some blinders on is in the word “know.” In English, this one word envelops many different ideas that in other languages are expressed using multiple words.

The Latin languages, for example use two main words. Spanish has saber and conocer. French has savoir and connaitre. Italian has sapere and conoscere. Similarly, German also has multiple words, primarily wissen and kennen but also erkennen and others.

The main difference in nuance in all these languages tends to be between knowing information and experiencing things. Basically, you can learn something abstractly or experientially. We all understand these differences, but apparently in English they are not seen as being very important. Which would we value more if we were to distinguish? Probably the: kennen, conocer, experiential kind. We look for people who don’t just know something from a book, we want experienced people.

Instead there is a good argument to be made that the smarter, more knowledgeable person is the one who learns things abstractly. Think about it. According to the Bible every bad thing that has happened in the world has happened because mankind decided it was not good enough to know about evil abstractly—simply to trust God when He said evil was something to be avoided. They—we—have an urge to experience evil. Eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil did not make us aware of evil for the first time. It was the experience of something God had already told us about.

We all know that wisdom is better than mere knowledge. Interestingly we discover that all the languages mentioned above derive the word for “wisdom” from the word for abstract knowledge, not experiential knowledge.

They say that some people have to learn things the hard way. A better approach to knowledge is to trust the knowledge and experience of people who know more than us, especially the knowledge of the One who has unlimited knowledge.

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