What is the difference – “wissen and kennen”

click picture for creditsHello everyone,

and welcome to another German Word of the Day – What is the Difference Special. Today we’ll look at the difference between

kennen and wissen

A real problem… unless your mother tongue is, say, Spanish or Italian or French or Portuguese. Or Swedish or Norwegian. Or Finnish or Hungarian. Because all these languages have two words as well.
That’s right English. You can’t give German the “Really?? Two words for one thing?“-look this time ;). Anyway, for a native speaker of English having two options for to know is really something to get used so today we’ll look a pretty straight forward way to tell them apart. And if you’re mother tongue is one of the above, you could read it anyway and share in the comments whether that would work for your language as well. Sounds good? Cool.

wissen vs kennen

Wissen and kennen both translate to to know and Old English had two verbs for that, too. There was to know, which is related to the Latin and Greek family that diagnosis and recognize come from, and there was witan which is related to German wissen as well as the family of vision. But then English speakers were like “What a waste… let’s just pick one.” and so they started using to know for everything while witan only got to live on in wisdom and wit. The original distinction was completely forgotten.
But this distinction is very obvious to people who do have two different words in their language, and mixing them up certainly sounds really wrong. And sometimes it might even change the meaning.

Now, of course this question has been asked a million times on the web already. A common explanation you can find is that wissen is about facts while kennen is more about being acquainted with something or someone.
That works fine, but I believe there is a even better, more down to earth way to put it. So I decided to throw it out and then people can just pick what works best for them.

All right. Little bit of groundwork first.
One of the fundamental dichotymon… uhm pairs in language is activities or verbs on the one hand and titties in the other. Oh… I meant entities. Stupid adult auto correct. Now, entities is a pretty abstract word. What I mean by is is simply “things or living beings”. Names and nouns, if you will. Entities just sums it up in one word nicely. Especially in German, knowing which group you’re dealing with in a can be very helpful when it comes to grammar and structure. And it’s also helpful here.
Because a best and easiest rule of thumb (in my opinion) for when to use wissen and kennen is this:

Wissen is for information that is expressed using a verb..
Kennen is for entities

So wissen is for what is going on and how stuff is. Kennen is for the stuff itself.

Kennen for entities, wissen for verb-based information . That’s it. It’s first and foremost a simple matter of phrasing. Does that tie in with the other explanation … the fact vs. acquainted approach? I think it does.

Those two sentence do not mean exactly the same. Suppose, we’re over at a friend’s house. There’s a soup simmering and our friend says:
“Hey try my onion peel soup. It’s a crazy new recipe I’ve tried out  for my food blog.”
In that situation, the second sentence, the one with wissen, states that we already do know how this soup tastes, so there’s no need for us to try it. The first one could also be said after we’ve tried the soup because it can express that we`re familiar with that taste. Like…
“I know that soup’s taste. Reminds me of water.”
So the two versions of to know do kind of express a different types of knowing. Knowing a fact vs. being acquainted with something. But you cannot detach it from the phrasing. You can’t say:

  • Ich kenne, wie die Suppe schmeckt.
  • Ich weiß den Geschmack der Suppe.

Those would sound odd, if not wrong, simply because kennen doesn’t work for with sentences and wissen doesn’t work well with entities. Now imagine yourself talking to a friend about your mean line manager…

  • I know her, I know how she is.

At least to me, the two parts in this statement express basically the same, just with a different phrasing. But with our new system it shouldn’t be a problem to tell which to know is what.

The first one is kennen because her is an entity, the second is wissen because it is a sentence.  Pretty simple. In practice, wissen is used a lot  in context of  questions because questions always have a verb at their core.

  • Ich weiß, wie/wo/wann/was/ob/dass ...

The same with kennen is just wrong even if to be acquainted/familiar would work in English.

Kennen is used a lot with names, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s a person or a song or a CD or a book.

And we cannot say

  • Ich weiß Interstellar…. WRONG

even if we know every second, every line of dialog, every shot, every message of the movie. The sentence would still be wrong simply because Interstellar is a name. An entity.
All right. I hope you got a good first grasp of it. Now let’s get to level two. So far, mixing up wissen and kennen simply resulted in a wrong or at least odd sounding sentence. Now let’s look at an example where either is possible but with a different meaning. A friend comes to you, all tired, and says this.

We could respond using either verb here.

And they do not mean the same. The wissen-version says that I know the content of the statement itself. The fact. So I know that my friend can’t sleep at full moon. I could simply make that one sentence

The kennen-version means that I myself can’t sleep at full moon either. It is kind of  like a short version of

  • I know that problem or phenomenon.

So, here we can see either way of making the distinction… knowing a fact vs. being acquainted with something or simply  wissen for verb based information (here: he is not able to sleep) and  kennen for entities (here: problem). Now, of course this distinction between entity and verb based info is not really a super strict rule so let’s pack our bags and venture out to the blurry edges, where wissen and kennen meet.

Exceptions… sorta

Behold the example :)

  • I know the way.

Based on what we’ve learned, this should be kennen. And kennen is indeed the better choice. But people use wissen, too.

Both sentences can express exactly the exact same thing. The kennen-version has a second notion though. It can also mean that we’re familiar with the way in sense that we’ve gone that way a few times already. We’re familiar with it.
The wissen-version is purely about knowing where we have to go. Here’s another example:

Again, kennen sounds better to me but people do use wissen as well. Both can mean the same but also here, the kennen-version could theoretically express something else. It could mean that we’ve heard that name before, that we’re familiar with the name itself. Like…

  • “I know your name… my friend’s dad is called Hufflepuff, too”

The wissen-version only means that we know how someone is called. So essentially the wissen-versions are purely about how the world is, the  kennen-versions are more ambiguous and can express general acquaintance with a thing. But in these examples they’re usually used just like the wissen-version. So the structural aspect kind of beats the meaning-aspect. If you know a noun, then you use kennen, even if being acquainted is not really the focus.

This is clearly about a fact and still both versions have about the same amount of hits on Google,and I feel like the kennen-version is the more literary one. Now, there are a few sentences out there, where wissen and kennen are both used with a noun, and mean different things.

Kennen would be about knowing the content of the chapter while the version with  wissen is kind of a shortened version of I know which chapter is it?”. So in the end this ties back in with what we had… that wissen works well with all kinds of questions. Now, there’s one more thing we should mention. German does use the phrase nicht mehr wissen a lot where English uses to not remember something.

And that only works with wissen, regardless of whether we’re dealing with verb-based information like in the example we just had, or with a noun.

  • Ich kenne deinen Namen nicht mehr.

The kennen-version would sound super odd and serious… like… “Name! You’ve changed! I don’t even know you anymore.” But on the whole I think going by structure is an easy and pretty fail safe way to decide which one to use. Here it is in a nutshell…

  • I know [that/why/which/if/where/who…] – > use wissen
  • I know [noun]                                                              – > use kennen

All right. So this was a pretty mechanical take on wissen and kennen. Mechanical in so far as that you don’t have to think much about what kind of knowing it is. You just look at whether it is an entity or a statement and you make your decision based on that. Time for a little quiz

  1. I know Maria’s boyfriend.
  2. I know where she met him.
  3. I know how to make cookies.
  4. I don’t know the recipe for cookies anymore.
  5. I know the trailer.
  6. I know the trailer exists.
  7. Do you know the way?
  8. Do you know how to get there?
  9. “I’m tired” “I know
  10. I know the difference between kennen and wissen.
  11. Yes, I know what the difference between kennen and wissen is.
  12. As you know, there are two words for to know in German.

And here are the solutions in ugly yellow… just mark ’em to read ’em

1. kennen   2.wissen   3. wissen   4. wissen   5   kennen   6 wissen 7.  kennen   8. wissen   9. wissen   10. kennen   11. wissen  12. wissen

If you want you can also try to translate all sentences in the comments. And if your mother tongue has two verbs for to know as well, it would be great if you could tell us if this system works for them as well or what other difference there is. And of course if you have any questions about this or if something didn’t make sense, just leave a comment. I hope you liked it and see you next time.