"Learning by heart" in many languages

Ernest Davis
August 6, 2022

Lorraine Daston, in her recent fascinating book, Rules: A Short History of What We Live By, (Princeton U. Press, 2022), includes a passage of rhapsodic praise of learning by heart:

Modern pedagogy stigmatizes memorization and regularly opposes it to originality, analysis, understanding, and other virtues associated with independent thinking. ... In the context of classroom learning, memorization is cordoned off from the exercise of truly human intelligence by the demeaning adjectives "rote" (mechanical repetition) or "brute" (animal imitation) ... Intellectual traditions that cultivate memorization seem at best curious, like the circus tricks of a card sharp, and at worst authoritarian. ...

Yet even modern European language preserve another, less pejorative register for memorization: "to learn by heart", auswendig lernen, apprendre par cœur. Applied preferentially to memorization of music or poetry or canonical tests, ... learning by heart faintly echoes the associations of internalization, of taking full possession of the material. Even if the achievement remains ceremonial ... it stands as an achievment to be admired rather than scorned as mental servility. What accounts for the contrast between the perception of rote memorization and that of learning by heart, which after all both refer to the same cognitive practice? Whereas the mechanical tinge of rote memorization implies that the material is as inert as an unopened book gathering dust on a shelf, what is learned by heart and rehearsed over and over is deeply learned and therefore deeply understood [Daston's emphasis] in ways that the same piece played from notes or read from the page is not.

Let me make a couple of brief comments about this before turning to the main point of this note. First, memorization is not as dead in modern culture as sometimes thought. In particular, it is alive and well in the performing arts. An actor who performs Hamlet must memorize more than 1500 lines. A pianist who performs a book of Bach's Well Tempered Clavier from memory must memorize tens of thousands of notes. A ballet dancer in a leading role must remember a sequence of thousands of movements, and how they fit with the music and with the other dancers.

Second, though I certainly agree with Daston that memorization should not be scorned, it also should not be fetishized, and Daston's last sentence quoted above, "what is learned by heart and rehearsed over and over ... is deeply understood in ways that the same piece played from notes or read from the page is not'' is hyperbolic. It depends on the work and the individual. In classical music, soloists generally perform from memory, ensemble players generally perform from a printed score, but I don't think one would want to disparage the depth of understanding of the latter compared to the former. I would not want to claim that every actor who has memorized a role or every person who has memorized a sacred text has a deeper understanding of it than a scholar who has devoted years to its study. I don't suppose that Daston would disagree here, but exaggerated statements of this kind can easily end up repeated as unquestioned dogma.

Third, Daston's statement that memorization and learning by heart are two terms of different register for the same cognitive activity is not quite right and obscures an important distinction. Memorization (as I understand the term) is a deliberate activity; one sits down with a body of material and rehearses it and checks ones own recital until it is known perfectly. Knowing by heart, on the other hand, can simply come about, by active repetition, by passive repeated exposure, or by acute sensitivity. Millions of people know many popular songs by heart that they have never sung, let alone deliberately set out to memorize. A religious practitioner who prays every day is likely to learn the prayers by heart.

I know a respectable quantity of [T.S.] Eliot's earlier work by heart. I did not sit down and learn it, it simply stuck in my mind as any passage of verse is liable to do when it has really rung the bell. Sometimes after only one reading it is possible to remember the whole of a poem of, say, twenty or thirty lines, the act of memory being partly an act of reconstruction.
— George Orwell, Review of Burnt Norton, East Coker, The Dry Salvages by T.S. Eliot.

However, the point that most struck me in the passage from Daston was her point about the multiple terms for memorization in different languages. I was curious to see how this actually works in different languages. Since I personally know very few, I asked my Facebook friends, and did a little looking up. The results of this informal poll and discussion are below.

(I have copied and pasted most of these from Facebook posts, and this process may well have corrupted some characters, particularly in non-Latin scripts. My apologies for any errors introduced.)

Arabic (Standard): فظ عن ظهر قلب (bieyhfaz aan daher 'albo) Literally, "he learns/remembers from the back/top of his heart." Another expression is فظ كرجة مي meaning, "he memorized like water flows." (Thanks to Berthe Choueiry.)

Arabic (Lebanese): بيبصم بصم biyebsom basem. Literally, "he learns like a fingerprint". The expression conveys the idea of an exact one-to-one correspondance. Because "basem", also used for fingerprinting, is related to "Stamping or imprint[, which] is exactly reproducing something". When you memorize you are engraving in your memory every word. (Thanks to Berthe Choueiry.)

Arabic (Moroccan) “b ha l ma” which means “to learn like you drink water” (meaning we memorize it until it becomes as easy as you drink water). Water is “Al ma e” in Arabic and Moroccan. (Thanks to Anasse Bari.)

Chinese: “背”. (Thanks to Pascale Fung.)

Croatian: "napamet". "Pamet" means mind, smartness. "Na" is a preposition like "on". (Thanks to Denny Vrandečić.)

Danish: "udenad" (outside) i.e. "outside the book" as in Greek and Swedish. (Thanks to Thore Husfeldt.)

English: There are at least three expressions: "memorize", "by heart", and "rote". "Memorize" obviously derives from "memory". According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "by heart" probably derives from the French, "par cœur". That probably reflects the ancient theory that the heart is the seat of memory (Aristotle, Hebrew Bible, etc.) (Thanks to Marco Montali for the suggestion.) Being a prepositional phrase, it can be attached to verbs other than "learn"; one can know something by heart, play it by heart, recite it by heart, and so on. The etymology of "rote" is unknown (I would have supposed that it was a cognate of "routine", but apparently that is not established.) "Rote" can either appear as a noun in the phrase "by rote"; or as an adjective as in "rote learning", or much less commonly as a noun without "by" --- "If they do pray, they have some short prayers of rote, which they utter as Parrats [sic] undersanding nothing of it, and so irreligiously discharging of it", quoted by the O.E.D. from 1652.

French: "par cœur" (literally, by heart); "mémoriser". (Thanks to Léon Bottou.)

German: "auswendig lernen". The etymology of this meaning of "auswendig" is not clear, at least to my informants. "Wenden" means to turn around. "Wendig" means "agile". "Aus" means "outside" and probably means "outside the book" as in Danish, Swedish, and Greek. A related expression is "in- und auswendig kennen" (to know something inside and out) Another expression is "Aus dem Kopf" (from the head.) (Thanks to Christina Behme, Thore Husfeldt, Valia Kordoni, Michael Witbrock, and Dan Zwick.)


«μαθαίνω από έξω», literally „to learn from outside“, meaning to be able to reproduce knowledge without having to read it from inside a book. (Thanks to Valia Kordoni.)

"Το ξέρω απ'έξω κι ανακατωτά" (toh KSEH-roh hap-EX-oh kia-na-ka-taught-AH) - "I know it from outside and in scrambled order". A longer, more boastful version of the previous expression

"Το ξέρω νεράκι" (toh KSEH-roh neh-RAH-kee) - "I know it (like) water". The word "νεράκι" literally means "little water"; it is a diminutive form of "νερό" (water) and sets the light-hearted tone of the saying. The expression is something one would expect a child to say, and one would probably not say "το ξέρω νερό".

"Το ξέρω ποίημα" or "Το ξέρω ποιηματάκι" (toh KSEH-roh PEEE-mah; to KSEH-roh peee-mah-TAH-kee) - "I know it (like) a poem". "Ποιηματάκι" is again the diminutive form of "ποίημα", "poem" that sets a more light-hearted tone. This generally means learning artistic creations by heart more or less spontaneously, or in any case without the conscious effort expected of learning.

"Το ξέρω παπαγαλία" (toh KSEH-roh pah-pah-gah-LEE-ah) - "I know it (like a) parrotism". "Παπαγαλία", which I translate as "parrotism", is a bit of a neologism that is only ever found in that context and means to be able to repeat something like a parrot, with the connotation of not really having understood the material. (Thanks to Stassa Patzantzis.)

Hebrew: בעל פה (b'al peh). Literally, "On the mouth." (Thanks to Joseph Davis and Dan Zwick).

Hindi: दिल से सीखना . (Thanks to Ajay Sharma.)

Italian: “imparare a memoria” or “imparare a mente” (which mean more or less “learning thanks to your memory”). (Thanks to Marco Montali.)

Korean: To memorize is either 외우다 or 외다. The latter also has a less used meaning of to repeat words over and over. (Thanks to Kyunghyun Cho.)

Polish: The expression in Polish ia "na pamięć" meaning "on memory". Schoolkids also say colloquially and more pictoresquelly that they 'forge' ("kuć" is "to forge") something (that is, commit to memory for good, one assumes) and the one that does this is known as "the forger" ("kujon" in Polish), which is also used to ridicule good students, similarly to the English terms like "a dork" or "a nerd". (Thanks to Adam Trybus.)

Romanian: There are four expressions but none of them involve the heart. The first three emphasize a lack of understanding or a mechanical memorization. The first phrase is the most disparaging, and dismissive of someone's ability to memorize.

(Thanks to Alex Vasilescu and Olivier Teytaud.)

Swedish: "lära sig utantill". The word "utantill" apparently has no separate translation, but can be broken down into "utan" (without/outside) and "till" (to). So a reasonable interpretation is that it means that you learn something "outside of" where you learned it from. (Thanks to Thore Husfeldt and Julian Togelius.)

Tamil: "Manappaadam: literally “learning by mind”. If the passage learned is a long one, in Tamil, it is also called neṭṭuru. The word uruppōdu means 'to learn by heart'. (Thanks to Aravind Srinivasan and to செ. இரா. செல்வக்குமார்.)

I am eager to expand the linguistic discussion here, so if you have more information about other languages, other expressions, etymologies and so on, please do email me at davise@cs.nyu.edu.


Thanks to Anasse Bari, Christina Behme, Léon Bottou, Kyunghyun Cho, Berthe Choueiry, Joseph Davis, Pascale Fung, Pat Hayes, Thore Husfeldt, Valia Kordoni, Stassa Patsantzis, Ajay Sharma, Aravind Srinivasan, Olivier Teytaud, Julian Togelius, Adam Trybus, Alex Vasilescu, Denny Vrandečić. Michael Witbrock, Dan Zwick, and செ. இரா. செல்வக்குமார். for their information and contributions to the Facebook discussion.