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What I wot
2004-03-03 16:53
by Score Bard

And why he left your court, the gods themselves,

Wotting no more than I, are ignorant.

--William Shakespeare, The Winter's Tale, Act III, scene II

Wotting. To wot. Chaucer used the word hundreds of times, Shakespeare used it 31 times. Now the word has vanished from the English language.

"To wot" meant "to know", but there was once a distinction between the two. Why wot left our tongue, the gods themselves, wotting no more than I, are ignorant.

Swedish has two related words, "veta" and "kunna", which retain the distinction. "Veta" means "to know that", while "kunna" means "to know how". If you're describing a fact, you use "veta". If you're describing a skill, you use "kunna". Knowing that Josh Beckett is a pitcher and knowing how to pitch are two different kinds of knowledge.

I have spent hours working on an essay trying to describe a particular distinction in the brain. This morning I realized the distinction is perfectly summarized by the difference between "veta" and "kunna". In English, it's a struggle to differentiate these two types of knowledge. A Swede will get it right away.

I know the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which claims that people are limited in their thinking by the features of their native language, is out of fashion. But from my experience, some ideas just more naturally come to mind in one language than another.

Just for fun, here are some other Swedish language features which lack a direct English counterpart:

  • Dörrarna stängs. If you ride the Stockholm subway, you'll hear this phrase. It means "The doors are being closed." Somehow in English, there's a feeling that " the driver" is being left out of the sentence. In Swedish, you can use a transitive verb and an object without implying a missing subject.

    I often wonder if this influences our culture, that we so eager to find blame for everything that goes wrong because we can't use transitive verbs without implying that there's some act of willpower behind it. A car was totalled, the driver was whom? Sometimes, humbug just happens, and there is no subject for the verb.

  • Jobbigt. This is a great adjective. It means "a lot of hard work." Did you do your homework? No, it was too jobbigt.

  • Tro, tycka, tänka. These verbs all translate as "to think", but they are three different kinds of thinking.

    "Tro" is a belief about facts, whose truth is independent of your belief. "I think the Marlins won the World Series last year." Even if I think the Tigers won last year, the fact still remains that the Marlins won.

    "Tycka" is a belief or opinion whose truth depends on your belief. "I think your hat is lovely." If I don't think the hat is lovely, the hat is not lovely.

    "Tänka" is a thought process. "I think about baseball every day."

    In English, the line between fact and opinion feels fuzzy. In Swedish, it's clear. When I hear English speakers confusing opinion with fact, I end up wishing we had this distinction in English.

  • Kissenödig. Another great adjective. It means "in need of peeing". I'm kissenödig, where's the bathroom?

  • Lagom. This adjective is everything you need to know about Swedish culture. It means "just the right amount", or "not too much, not too little." In America, the ideal state of being is the richest person with the biggest house. In Sweden, the ideal is to be lagom. You want to be lagom rich with a lagom home. Even if you are the best, like Björn Borg or Ingemar Stenmark or Peter Forsberg, you still are expected to act as if you're only lagom successful.

Well, I tycker that this entry is lagom long. It's getting jobbigt to write more. I'm kissenödig. Dörrarna stängs.

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