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'Conocer' and Related Words

Modifying Verb Provides Variety of Meanings


The Alhambra

Mi padre conoce España. (My father knows Spain.)

Photo by Erinc Salor; licensed via Creative Commons.

Conocer is a Spanish verb meaning to know or understand. Like many other common verbs, the use of conocer can be expanded through the use of prefixes and other variations that provide for noun and adjective forms as well.

English speakers learning Spanish should not confuse conocer with saber, another verb that can also be translated as "to know." The latter verb is often used when talking about knowing how to do something.

Generally, conocer means "to know" in the sense of to understand or to recognize a person, place or thing:

  • ¿Conoces a tu enemigo? Do you know your enemy?
  • No conocía la canción pero gracias a Google ya tengo la letra. I didn't know the song, but thanks to Google I now have the words.
  • ¿Conoces tus derechos? Do you know your rights?
  • Mi padre conoce España. My father knows Spain.

Conocer can also be used to mean "to meet." This is its normal meaning in the preterite tense:

  • Sólo hace tres meses que nos conocimos. It has been only three months since we met.
  • Conocí a tu sobrina. I met your niece.

Although its use isn't very common, conocerse, the reflexive form of conocer can be used indicate total knowledge: El edificio me lo conozco de cabo a rabo. I know the building from top to bottom.

Very close in meaning is reconocer, which is often translated as "to recognize." Conocer and reconocer are sometimes interchangeable; reconocer often suggests a more conscious or intentional form of knowing:

  • ¿Cómo puedo reconocer que estoy recibiendo un tratamiento adecuado? How can I recognize that I am receiving a good treatment?
  • La sociedad no quiere reconocer que hay drogadicción en la ciudad. Society doesn't want to admit that there is drug addiction in the city.
  • Yo no reconocía su voz. I didn't recognize his voice.

Preconocer, as you might expect, means to know ahead of time or to foresee: Dios preconoce todo lo que va a ocurrir. God foreknows everything that is going to happen.

More common is desconocer, which means "not to know": Desconozco su nombre pero no importa. I don't know his name, but that doesn't matter.

The noun form of conocer is conocimiento, which means "knowledge" or "body of knowledge" (such as a science):

  • El acceso al conocimiento determina quién puede participar en la sociedad. Access to knowledge determines who can participate in society.
  • Prueba tus conocimientos. Test your knowledge.
  • No tengo conocimiento si ellos hayan sido invitados. I don't have knowledge if they have been invited.

The adjective form is conocido, typically meaning "known" or "well-known":

  • Pittsburgo es conocido como "la ciudad del acero." Pittsburgh is known as "the city of steel."
  • La incidencia es mayor en mujeres que en varones por razones no conocidas. The incidence is greater in women than in men for unknown reasons.

You've probably noticed the similarity of reconocer and the English "recognize." It shouldn't come as a surprise that the words are related: Both come from the Latin verb cognoscere, meaning "to learn." Less obvious is the connection between the cognoscere and the English "know." Both derived from an ancient Indo-European root, gno. More direct descendants of the Latin cognoscere still exist in English in words such as "cognition" and "incognito." Cognates of these words exist in Spanish, too, although they aren't very common:

  • Cognición is roughly synonymous with conocimiento and is used as a scientific term.
  • Incógnito means "unknown." As a masculine noun, el incógnito means an unknown reason. In mathematics, the feminine noun form, la incógnita, means an unknown quantity.

Conocer is conjugated irregularly. When the stem is followed by an -o or -a, the -c- of the stem chanes to -zc-. These changes affect the first-person singular indicative (conozco, I know), the present subjunctive (conozca, conozcas, etc.) and imperative forms based on the subjunctive.

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