In our last Etymology Adventure, we mentioned that unheimlich is usually translated as “uncanny.” While it’s true that there’s something lost in translation, there is also something gained. Let’s start with the Old Scots word ken. Ken is drawn from lots of linguistic sources, some of which are mentioned in the previously posted House of Leaves footnote. There’s Old Norse, Middle English, Proto-Germanic… we’re not etymologists, but we can tell you it’s totally crazy. Anyway, all these words generally refer to “knowledge.” Ever heard the phrase “beyond one’s ken”? That basically means beyond one’s knowledge, or capacity for comprehension.
We chose to start with ken because it is most closely relatable to the German verb kennen, which Rune uses in her sentence “Ich kenne das Wort” (I know that word). Kennen means “to know,” but so too does wissen. German has two words for knowing! And they are different kinds of knowing.
Wissen is about information. You use it when you say you know a date, or a fact, or anything like that—or when you need to say “I don’t know” in response to someone’s question. That kind of thing. Kennen is, as Rune says, about familiarity. You use it for things you are familiar with. People you’ve met, places you’ve been, books you’ve read, bands you listen to. So it’s a specific kind of knowledge, one that requires actually being acquainted with the thing you’re talking about.
Now, back to ken—one of the words it comes from is cunnan, which in turn helped bring about the English word “uncanny.” Uncanny, as you all know, is something that is strange or particularly unfamiliar. Makes sense, right? It’s like saying un-kennable—un-knowable. And this is how we translate unheimlich. It’s true, with uncanny we don’t get that lovely German sense of “home,” the homey sensation that is somehow lost in the unheimlich, but there is actually this whole layer of lost familiarity, buried deep in uncanny’s linguistic origins.
Guys. Language is SO COOL.
Seriously, Berlin Confidential would be all about this stuff if it didn’t have so much plot.