Italian Language Blog

Homo Sapiens Posted by on Jan 9, 2009 in Grammar

Homo Sapiens is a Latin construction meaning “Knowledgeable or Wise Human Being”. Sapiens, or in Italian Sapiente, comes from the verb sapere (to know), however in Italian we also have the verb conoscere (to know). These two verbs, conoscere and sapere, although both translating as “to know”, have different meanings, which are not interchangeable.

Sapere deals with:

Knowing a fact: so che Giovanni arriva stasera (I know that Giovanni will arrive this evening); so il suo indirizzo (I know his address)

Knowing how to do something: so nuotare (I can swim); so parlare l’italiano (I can speak Italian)

Knowing something by heart: sai questa poesia a memoria? (do you know this poem by heart?)

Finding out a fact: ti telefono per sapere se vieni al cinema (I’m phoning to find out if you’re coming to the cinema)

Conoscere on the other hand is concerned with:

Being familiar with a work of art (book, painting, music, etc.): conosci la “Monna Lisa” di Leonardo? (Do you know the “Mona Lisa” by Leonardo?)

Knowing a place: conosci Venezia? (do you know Venice?); conosco un buon ristorante (I know of a good restaurant)

Knowing a person: conosci Giovanni? (do you know Giovanni?). Notice that in the past tense conoscere qualcuno means “to meet somebody”: ho conosciuto Giovanni a casa di Mario (I met Giovanni at Mario’s house).

In other words sapere implies having a knowledge that enables you to do something while conoscere means “to be acquainted with”. The English words cognition and recognize both come from the same root as conoscere and in fact recognize (riconoscere in Italian) literally means to ‘re-know’ something or someone.    

So, beware! If somebody asks you: Conosci la canzone O sole mio?” they are asking if you know of or have heard of the song O sole mio; but if they ask you: Sai la canzone O sole mio?” they are asking if you can sing it.

Adesso sapete come usare questi due verbi. Now you know how to use these two verbs.



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