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Thursday, May 19, 2011

Do I know you?

 I heard recently that English is the largest language in the world. That is to say that we have the largest vocabulary. Mostly, this is a historical accident. Modern English was really common when the wold "shrank" thanks to media and the internet, and as a result we have been plagiarizing words from other languages non-stop (I think it also has a lot to do with the globe-spanning British Empire). That being the case, my attention was recently drawn to one of our greatest deficiencies. We only have one verb for "to know". Which is odd. And unfortunate. Both of the other languages I speak, have at least two verbs which reflect what are, in my opinion, two nearly completely different concepts. But English only has one, and as a result we have a bad tendency to confuse those two concepts. Even more unfortunately there are significant theological implications behind the concept we are using. I'm not sure how this one works out in Greek and Hebrew (little info check all you linguists out there?) and there is some natural overlap between the two concepts which I will get into a little later, but this distinction is worth exploring either way.

   "To know" - bilmek (Turkish) - wissen (German) - means to know about, to have information. You would use bilmek  to talk about information. In fact the Turks went ahead and incorporated that word when they coined a new word after the computer was invented (a "bilgisayar" is a knowledge/information processor). So you would use bilmek when you have information about something: I bilmek that my wife is beautiful, I bilmek that my car is a honda, I bilmek that 2+5=7. On the theological level, there are certain things we bilmek about God: He is Love, He is Truth, He is Good and so forth.

At the same time, "to know" - tanimak (Turkish) - kennen (German)- means to know relationally. You would use tanimak to express your acquaintance with or knowledge of someone or something. We are usually using the word this way when we say "yeah I know him" or "oh I know suffering". It implies intimacy and relationship. So I tanimak my wife and my son.  This meaning is a little harder to communicate in English because it tends to be a secondary usage, we assume that you need to know about bilmek someone or something before you can know tanimak them.

    And that is where I think the problem begins. I would suggest that in terms of our relationships, tanimak knowing is actually much more important than bilmek knowing. I am willing to grant that there has to be at least a little bilmek knowing going on in order to have any tanimak since it is would be impossible to have a relationship with someone you know absolutely nothing about. But I think that it is a very , very little bit. Some of the most frightening passages in the bible, involve God saying "I never knew you". But it would seem really silly to suggest that God means "wow I didn't know you existed, how about that". I think we all understand that he is talking tanimak knowing here, not bilmek knowing.
    And this is why I find it so very strange that Christians in America are getting so up in arms about the relative importance of so many theological facts. Nearly all of them are bilmek facts. When we say that someone needs to know Jesus, aren't we saying that they need to tanimak know Him, not that they need to bilmek know Him? After all bilmek knowing is all about quantity; how many facts do I know about Him, while tanimak knowing is all about quality; how well do I know Him? To place bilmek knowing over tanimak knowing would suggest that entry into the kingdom tao is based on being able to pass a theology test. Which is ludicrous.
  This is one of the reasons I am so excited about the general relational approach to theology. If it isn't clear by now, I am all about truth, I think it's really important. But may I suggest that in the realm of theology we ought to test our theological conclusions against our body of tanimak knowledge before our bilmek knowledge? I would suggest that it is more important to ask whether each new conclusion is consistent with the God I know tanimak than whether it is consistent with my body of bilmek knowledge about Him. Hopefully I can do both.
    Let me add one final paragraph in defense of bilmek knowledge which I'm afraid I may have cast in too negative a light. Bilmek knowledge is still incredibly important. If I tanimak know someone, and I love them, then I ought to want to bilmek know as much about them as I can. I love to learn new things about my wife and my son. I bilmek know that my son doesn't like chicken  and I bilmek know that he loves firetrucks and being outside. I bilmek know that my wife cries when she watches Disney cartoons and I bilmek know that her knee is the most ticklish spot on her. These facts, these bits of bilmek knowledge delight me, they deepen my tanimak knowledge of them. So bilmek is important. But look what just happened, now you bilmek know things about my wife and my son, but you still don't tanimak know them. So in English now, do you know them?


  1. I'm not adding anything to the theological or philosophical discussion, but I thought, I'd drop a comment on the "knowing" thing. Chinese has the same distinction between the two "knowings" as well. 认识renshi to know someone,知道zhidao the other know. I find this particular in a language where everything sounds nearly the same. I have no clue what the size of the vocabulary is but there's only like 1600 sounds in Chinese compared to 20,000 in English, but even the Chinese thought it important enough to have two different "knows"!

  2. Yaşasın Türkçe, Chinese and German!

  3. I would think that there would be interesting uses and wordplays with a word that had such different meanings. While a deficiency in one way it could almost be a strength in another. Sadly, most will probably not use it in such a fun way.

  4. Yeah as I understand it English is in a small minority in this case. Which is especially odd given that at least one of the languages it is descended from (German) does have the two verbs.

  5. I've been following your blog for a while and yet, have not commented. That's not the point. The point is, I actually completely agree with you on this one! Which, funnily enough (is funnily a word?) is not what tends to happen when I read your blog. Not that that is a bad thing; I happen to think it's a very good thing. How boring would a blog be if you always agreed with everything written?
    Part of my job is teaching elementary-age children about language and "the world" (i.e. practical applications of the things they're learning already in the other classes) and I have just had this conversation in the last week. I think it would be more descriptive to have two different verbs for the different meanings. Most of the children, however, think it would make things more confusing. The only child to agree with me was a bilingual boy who tried to explain to the other kids that it makes more sense to have two different verbs.

    Anyway, that's my two rambling cents.

    P.S. The words "bilmek" and "tanimak" make me want to learn to speak Turkish. As if my life isn't full enough with learning two other languages at once.