What does it mean to know something, or someone? To know is such a common verb that we use all the time, but when you really look into it, it becomes quite complex.
Defining it seems fairly straightforward: it means to understand something, or generally have knowledge about something. But consider the two following sentences:
I know how to speak French.
I know Jack.
They’re not quite the same, are they? In the first one we have information about something, and an understanding of how to use that information. In the second one, we’re saying that we’re familiar with someone: we’ve met them, we know about them. We can use this sense of to know in other cases too: we might know a particular film or song, or a place. The first use is a little more abstract: it’s about having information and/or understanding, but it need not necessarily refer to something concrete.
Now, these distinctions might seem quite academic. We have no difficulty immediately processing the different ways to use to know. But what interests me is that while English makes do with to know, other languages use separate verbs for these different types of knowing. Just looking at the other languages I have some knowledge of, both Irish and French use different verbs in similar ways. French, for example, distinguishes between connaître (to be familiar with something concrete), and savoir (to have information or understanding about something more abstract). So in French, the two example sentences above would be translated as:
Je sais parler français (I know how to speak French).
Je connais Jack (I know Jack).
English still gets by perfectly fine with to know. It might seem a little strange that a language that’s often so precise uses a single verb to cover a range of meanings, but it’s not actually so rare in English. Consider how many meanings do, make, have, or take can have, for example. Still though, Old English did used to have two different verbs to refer to having knowledge: to know, and to wit. To know originally meant to be acquainted with, whereas to wit meant to have knowledge about something in a general sense. To wit had already fallen out of usage by medieval times, though it still lingers on in the expression to wit, meaning that is to say.
It’s hard to say why exactly we stopped using to wit, while many other languages retained two distinct verbs. Perhaps English was often used, like today, by non-native speakers unfamiliar with the exact rules who mistakenly used to know in place of to wit, and to know became more and more widespread. But like I said, we get by with just to know in English, particularly because we can still manipulate it in subtle ways. English shares similar prepositions with most other European languages, but one area in which English is particularly effective in using them is in changing the meaning of verbs depending on which preposition is used after them, or whether a preposition is used at all. Consider the following:
“Do you know Jack?”
“Well, I know of him, but I couldn’t say I know him.”
or this exchange from the classic Simpsons episode “You Only Move Twice:”
Teacher: Do you know multiplication tables? Long division?
Bart: I know of them.
Here, just by adding of, we make the distinction between being acquainted with someone/something and having some general awareness about them completely clear. We can use about in similar way to indicate we have some more detailed information. And we can use other expressions with even needing to use to know. We can say we’re acquainted with someone, are familiar with something, or are aware of it. In fact, it was the phrase to be aware of… that made me think of this topic.
Recently I saw a tourist brochure for a whale-watching boat written in English by a non-native speaker. I don’t mean to criticise the writer for their English, or mock them, because the standard was quite high overall. But there was one thing that made me smile. More than once, they stressed that their instructors and guides were highly qualified, and “were aware of all types of whales.” Of course I understood that they meant that they’re experts, but I was struck by the idea of guides who had at some point in their life simply heard about most types of whales, and could perhaps identify pictures of them.
After enjoying a slightly guilty chuckle, I considered the subtleties of referring to knowledge in English. We may only have one verb strictly reserved for knowledge, but we have a whole host of expressions to refer to different types of knowledge. This is great for native speakers, who can easily make it clear what type or degree of knowledge they’re referring to. Of course this is a little tricky for learners of English, as the brochure demonstrates. Still, I’d be happy enough to get into a boat with some who knows of whales, so these little distinctions aren’t always crucial.