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I work in an industrial setting. Today I had a conversation with my coworkers in which we discussed that another group knew that our group has requirements that they were not going to meet based on their current work plan. Even though this group has told us they know we have requirements for them, they do not seem to be actively working towards satisfying them. I wanted to make a pithy comment to describe this conflict between their statements and their actions but could only come up with clumsy language.

The situation reminded me of French in which there are two distinct words that both translate as know in English: savoir and connaître. The first of these describes an academic learning whereas the second describes a familiarity.

For example, a new immigrant to London might study for the cabbie exam and know the streets of London very well, in this case, the verb savoir would be appropriate to describe his knowledge. But, only after actually driving on the streets for some time would it be appropriate to say he knows them in the sense of connaître.

So, is there any short way to describe these two distinct forms of knowledge in English?

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Actually, with London cabbies, there is something quite specific called the Knowledge, which is capitalized. –  tchrist Feb 13 '13 at 18:47
Yes, I know :) about the Knowledge, that's what brought the example to mind. –  AdamRedwine Feb 13 '13 at 22:12

5 Answers 5

up vote 2 down vote accepted

As I understand it, connaître indicates familiarity gained from personal experience, whereas savoir is to know a fact intellectually.

While not a perfect analogue, one can compare this to the distinction between theoretical knowledge and practical knowledge. The former is abstract, systematic and acquired through logic, whereas the latter is acquired by studying "facts on the ground." In theory (or on paper, i.e. according to plan and schedule) a flight may depart at 15:04 and arrive at 16:37, making a 17:24 connection possible; in practice, due to congestion, the plane does not usually reach the gate until after 16:50, making the connection impossible.

The colloquial terms book smart and street smart are related. Someone who is book smart may be an excellent scholar, but lacks the common sense or social skills of someone who is street smart.

English also distinguishes between knowing something (meaning to possess knowledge of something) and knowing of something (having awareness of the existence of something). This is again an inexact analogue to the terms, but one that I would apply to your coworkers: they know of the requirements but they do not know them.

There is an old line from The Simpsons

Teacher: Do you know multiplication tables? Long division?

Bart: I know of them.

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If I had remembered that Simpson's line, I probably could have worked it into the conversation. "They know of our requirements... but they don't know our requirements." –  AdamRedwine Feb 13 '13 at 22:19

"knowledge", "familiarity" and "acquantance" are the 3 words I use to differentiate between the concepts. I developed this discernment after learning German where the equivalent of the verb "know" was actually 2 different words, depending on meaning:

wissen: know, realize

kennen: know, know of, be acquainted with (I include "familiarity" in this meaning as well, as in "I am acquainted with/familiar with X")

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Short answer: No.

As you point out, both savoir and connaitre translate as "to know". The best way to make the distinction you are looking for in English would be to contrast knowledge and information. A train schedule is information while a deep understanding of n-dimensional mathematics is knowledge. Knowledge implies understanding while information is just a collection of facts.

In French, I believe you would use connaitre for possessing knowledge and savoir for possessing information.

EDIT: I just checked the OED and cannot find support for this distinction between knowledge and information. It is, however, how I understand the words. Perhaps it is cultural or perhaps I have imagined it. Lets see what other people think.

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Having studied a great deal of n-dimensional mathematics, and having a deep interest in philosophy and religion, I would disagree with your distinction between knowledge and information and agree with your edit that such a distinction is cultural. Your short answer, however, is probably correct. –  AdamRedwine Feb 13 '13 at 22:16

The difference between savoir and connaître is not quite as you describe it. There are two types of knowledge: ‘knowledge how’ and ‘knowledge that’. The first is known as ‘ability knowledge’ and the second is known as ‘propositional knowledge’.

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Sounds like a saber vs. conocer topic (i.e., Spanish). You might try a bilingual dictionary online to meet the particulars of the language pair you are dealing with. I like the Collins Reverso dictionaries.

Also try a good monolingual dictionary to help out with the paraphrasing. The Oxford Advanced Learner's dictionaries are pretty good:

OALD entry (standard)

OALD American entry

Some paraphrasing that might help

to shed some light on something: to help someone understand something in more detail

to encounter, to come across, to find out: the beginning of knowing something

to meet: the beginning of knowing who someone is

to hear about: vague or slight understanding, passing knowledge

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@terdon: I'm not sure what you're trying to say with all the dashes and square brackets. Anyway, as far as Spanish goes, conocer is more of a familiarity whereas saber is for facts and information. Knowledge would would usually be conocimientos, and knowing could go either way. Probably, yes, my answer is "tainted" with Spanish, but the OP hasn't actually specified which language pair the question is about, so it could be relevant. –  Adam Feb 26 '13 at 4:02
I'm not ure what I was trying to say either. My apologies, I started to write the comment and then, apparently, my cat walked over my keyboard. In any case, it was my answer which was tainted by Spanish, a language I speak much better than the French I based my answer on. –  terdon Feb 26 '13 at 8:52

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