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. And today, we’ll look at the difference between

kennen and wissen

A real problem. Unless your mother tongue is 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 language. You can’t give German the “Really?? Two words for one thing?“-look this time ;).
Old English actually had two verbs, 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, just like German wissen, belong to the of vision. But then English speakers were like “What a waste… let’s just pick one.” and started using to know for everything while witan only got to live on in wisdom and wit. And generations of English speakers have since struggled to wrap their mind around the difference between wissen and kennen.
Well… today, this will change because I have found a really simple, really effective way to tell them apart.
And if you’re mother tongue is one of the languages above, that also have two words… well, you could read on anyway and share in the comments whether that would work for your language as well. Sounds good? Cool.

wissen vs kennen

When you look for the difference between wissen and kennen online, you’ll likely find something that talks about the “kinds of knowing”. Like…. wissen is about facts while kennen is more about being acquainted with something or someone.”
That works okay but it’s kind of vague.
I believe there is a even better, more down to earth way to put it.
A little bit of groundwork first.
One of the fundamental dichotomies in language is actions (verbs) on the one hand and titties in the other. Oh… I meant entities. And entities (and entity is really just a short way for me to say “things or living beings”).
Now, especially in German, knowing which of these two you’re looking at can be very helpful when it comes to grammar and structure. And it’s also helpful with the question of wissen and kennen. Because we can use it to create the best and easiest rule of thumb for when to use which.
Here it is:

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

Tadah! I’m really proud actually :).
Let’s look at an example.

  • Ich kenne einen sprechenden Baum.
  • I know a speaking tree.
  • Trees do not talk
    “I know that.”
  • Bäume sprechen nicht.”
    “Ich weiß (das).”

In the first sentence, we know an entity – a speaking tree. So we use kennen. In the second example, we know verb-based information the fact “Trees don’t talk.” And so we use wissen.
And that’s it, pretty much. This system doesn’t require us to think too hard about meaning. We can just look at structure.
And that can make it much easier, sometimes.
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 the phrasing is different. So making a decision which translation to use based on meaning is kind of difficult.
But with our new system that just relies on structure, it’s super easy.

  • Ich kenne sie, ich weiß, wie sie ist.

The first one is kennen because her is an entity, the second is wissen because it is a sentence. Pretty simple, right?
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 ...

Using kennen in such sentences is just wrong; even if to be acquainted/familiar would work in English.

  • I’m familiar with how difficult it is to learn the gender.
  • Ich kenne, wie schwer es ist… wrong
  • Ich weiß, wie schwer es ist…

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.

  • Ich kenne XYZ.

And we cannot say:

  • Ich weiß The Rise of Skywalker…. WRONG

Even if we know every second, every line of dialog, every shot, and every plot hole of the movie, the sentence would still be wrong simply because The Rise of Skywalker is a name. An entity.
All right.
Now, so far, mixing up wissen and kennen simply resulted in a wrong or at least odd sounding sentence. Let’s now look at an example where either one is possible, but with a different meaning. A friend comes to you, all tired, and says this.

  • Bei Vollmond kann ich nicht schlafen.
  • I can’t sleep when there’s a full moon.

We could respond using either verb here.

  • Ich weiß das.
  • Ich kenne das.

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

  • Ich weiß, dass du bei Vollmond nicht schlafen kannst.

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 now that we have a rule for when to use which, let’s so let’s pack our bags and venture out to the blurry edges, where wissen and kennen meet. Because the rule is not a strict rule, after all. It’s just a rule of thumb that works well and that’s easy to apply. But there are fringe cases.

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.

  • Ich weiß den Weg.
  • Ich kenne den Weg.

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:

  • I know your name.
  • Ich kenne/weiß deinen Namen.

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.

  • Ich kenne/weiß die Lösung.
  • I know the solution.

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.

  • Ich kenne/weiß das Kapitel nicht.
  • I don’t know the chapter.

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.

  • Ich weiß nicht mehr, wann der Termin ist.
  • I don’t know anymore, when…. (lit)
  • I don’t remember at what time the appointment was.
    (I’m pretty sure the second part of this sentence is wrong… little help, please :)

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 weiß deinen Namen nicht mehr.
  • I don’t remember your name.
  • 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.
And now, I’d say it’s time for a little quiz :)

And that’s it for today. This was a kind of new way to tell wissen and kennen apart. And I’m really curious what you think about it? Does it make sense? Is it easy to apply? Or do you like the other way better?
Let me know all your thoughts in the comments.
Oh 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, leave them in the comments as well and we’ll clear them up.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.

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5 months ago

Emanuel, your blog is a masterpiece!
You don’t know how much your blog has been helping me out during the process, and I’m sure this also applies to many others.
Thanks for the efforts and the work, and keep it up!

9 months ago

Thanks! You are a genius!

I hadn’t thought of it, but I see now that it is the same with Hindi.
Equivalent of kennen: H. जानना (from Sanskrit ज्ञान, jñāna = knowledge)
Equivalent of wissen: H. पता, (from S. प्रत्यय, pratyaya = belief, conviction, faith, etc.)

11 months ago

Danke für den tollen Artikel. Endlich kenne ich den Unterricht zwischen “wissen” und “kennen”. Vorher wusste ich nicht genau, was der Unterschied war.

1 year ago

As a German I was never aware of this specific difference, the difference in talking comes from the habit and normalty of use.

But in the same way you still can (almost) tell both apart in the last section.

“kennen” = having made the experience with an *equal* (but not necessarily the *same* thing), (got to) know sthg. *from the past*.

“wissen” = to know something concrete from the current conversation or the current topic, to know the exact thing that is talked about. It also is said to signal that you got to know it just now or very recently or for affirmation to sound like a fact (“wissen” is used to indicate knowing the answer to a question, even if you would use “kennen” in other contexts) rather than “kennen” which would sound like a side note.

While you also can use “wissen” with “entities” (for a slightly different connotation), you never can use “kennen” respective to verbs, actions or phrases that contain an action, at least from my experience as native speaker and it would indeed sound strange. Beginners just could use “wissen” for everything which is better than using “kennen” for everything but it will have unwanted connotations in some cases.

The difference becomes significant if you think about the different meanings of these responses to someone else:
“I know.” (<- “wissen”, says that it’s nothing new to me.)
“I know it too.” (<- “kennen”, says that I already experienced something equal before which is not interchangeable with the previous response.)

And for the negation, “… nicht *mehr* kennen” more often means to have suppressed or erased memories (the past) of something/someone in one’s mind. It’s more negative and more actively than just “… nicht *mehr* wissen” which means to have forgotten something/someone. But colloquial language can also confound both sayings in specific moments to mean the same, which just is typical for colloquial language.

So “wissen” seems like a more strong and concrete version of “kennen”, although the difference in using them, as described on this site, is right (which I wasn’t even aware of before).

1 year ago

In Scottish, they have “to ken”.

John Macleod
John Macleod
1 year ago

Dialogue* btw

1 year ago

Cool article. Also, your rule of thumb would work for the Romanian pair „a ști/ a cunoaște”, although I believe one could use „a ști” (the Romanian „wissen”) for all instances without ever employing „a cunoaște/kennen” :).

1 year ago

Ach, endlich! Something that my brazilian portuguese can be helpful. Funny that I only got conscious that my language makes the same distinction now. In Brazil we have the verbs Saber e Conhecer, which can be the analog of Wissen (saber) and Kennen (conhecer). I noticed that even in the examples where you can use both verbs in german it works in portuguese too, that’s nice (:

2 years ago

All of this apply 100% to French.
The only thing is that “nicht mehr wissen” is not particularly common in French when you simply want to say that you don’t remember. It is more common when you want to express how mixed up you are. Say, you are studying for a Biology exam and you have to learn all sorts of things and processes by heart and then the friend whom you are studying with asks you: “so how does the Krebs Cycle works again?” you could answer: “Ah, je (ne) sais p(l)u(s)! :/” (Ach, das weiss ich nicht mehr!) and you could be thinking “May that exam go to hell!” or “I think I’m gonna cry…”. But it could also be used when you want to say that you don’t remember how to do a particular action or task. “Can you install me this software on my computer?” – “Je sais pu comment faire ça”. But rarely “Do you know her name?” – “J(e)’le sais pu”.

3 years ago

Hi, I just discovered that blog and have already learnt a lot of things… Thanks!!!

French is my native language. There are two verbs and their use is very similar to their German counterparts: connaître for kennen, and savoir for wissen.

But I guess it would work out better in French with the distinction entities / phrase. What I’m trying to say is: you can find “savoir + noun” in French, but there must be something else with a verb that goes with it.
An example: “Je ne sais pas le temps qu’il fera demain” // I don’t know what the weather will be tomorrow // ich weiss nicht, was das Wetter morgens wird (??? Please do not hesitate to correct me…): in English and in German you get a word (what, was) introducing the subordinate part of the sentence, between know / wissen and the noun, but here in French that word (qu’) comes after the noun. What matters though is that you can’t take out the subordinate here and keep saying something that is not really weird…

One thing more: “savoir” is also used a bit like “can” to talk about something you know how to do: je sais danser, je sais nager // I can dance, I can swim = I know how to; and just as I have read here about Italian :-) there is a different way of saying “I can swim because I am on the beach”: “je peux nager parce que je suis à la plage”.

That’s it, thanks again!

Rajveer Singh Shekhawat
Rajveer Singh Shekhawat
3 years ago

(4) I don’t know the recipe for cookies anymore.
Answer – wissen

My question – why not “kennen”?

3 years ago

I’m glad you cleared this up for us. It’s interesting because in English these days, ‘know’ pretty much just means the knowledge of facts rather than familiarity with or prior experience of something, but in Victorian times they used to use the euphemism ‘carnal knowledge’ to describe sexual intercourse, which makes much more sense if you think of knowledge as being the actual experience of something rather than simply being aware of a fact.

4 years ago

I think it holds up fine. Book is similar to the exception you mentioned in the blog: ‘knowing’ the ‘way’.

There are things that you can both be aware of their existence and also understand their inner workings. For these things, kennen and wissen can both be used, but they give slightly different meanings.

Ich kenne den Weg. I know (am aware) of the way. (Where it is. What it’s called.)

Ich weiss den Weg. I know (understand) the way. (How to navigate it.)

Same goes for books. I know (am ware) that there’s a book named ‘Introduction to Modern Astrophysics’, but don’t know (understand) the book.Hence, Ich kenne das Buch, aber ich weiss es nicht.

At least that’s how I see it and how the two words work in Thai.

3 years ago
Reply to  German-is-easy

Can’t you have that distinction even to say that you have learnt the book by heart? Or, let’s say, a poetry: “I know it”, would mean, “yes I have done my job and learnt it for school tomorrow”. How would you translate that “I know it” in German?

But then I guess on the other side, if you want to say that you know it exists (waiting in your school bag…), you would rather say “I know about that poetry”?

4 years ago

My native tongue is Thai and we have two words, too. They are used exactly the same way as wissen and kennen.

4 years ago
Reply to  German-is-easy

A guideline that I think can be useful for English speakers is to substitute ‘understand’ for ‘know’. If the meaning stays mostly intact, then use wissen. Otherwise, use kennen.

For example,

I know how to get to the hospital. –> I understand how to get to the hospital.
This sentence is fine, so we use ‘wissen’. Hence, Ich weiß, wie ich ins Krankenhaus komme. (I think. I’m still not that good at German.)

I know the hospital. –> I understand the hospital.
This is not okay, so we use ‘kennen’. Hence, Ich kenne das Krankenhaus.

Jo Alex Sg
Jo Alex Sg
4 years ago

I´ve never read a better explanation for the difference between these verbs and their subtle differences in meaning in certain contexts. And, as a plus, the substantial comments are so informative and educational that I confess I could not read all of them.
Thank you ever so much for the Scots blog link, by the way! If somebody there also has any interest in Cumbrian and Northumbrian, I´ve found some interesting sites by activists and organizations of these two over the web as well (for Scots there are many more, of course), though not for the specific word in question, as the link Emanuel has given us for the Scots word “ken”!

5 years ago

Ich habe ein Rätsel im Facebook gesehen, dass die Frage stellt: ,,Wer kennt die Antwort?” Vermutlich, wird man mit dem Lösung bekannt erwartet. Oder…?

5 years ago

wissen is knowledge about something, kennen is knowledge of something

Gofun Dake
Gofun Dake
6 years ago

I have stumbled upon this sentence: Wüßte ich nur seine Adresse! If only I knew his address! Can I use kennen here?

Tahanie Šyr
6 years ago

Many thanX I found this examples. Helpful.

6 years ago

Hi, really helpful as always :)

Well, my question:

At the end you talked about the whole ‘wissen… nicht mehr’. I was wondering if you could use ‘wissen… mehr’ to mean ‘I still know/remember’ or if it’d be better to just use ‘noch’? For example, the sentence: I still know/remember all the words to this song.

I’m not sure if I even got this sentence right to start with, so please correct me, but could I say ‘Ich weiß allen den Liedtext dieses Liedes mehr.’ or would I have to say ”Ich weiß noch allen den Liedtext dieses Liedes.’ If both are correct, which is better/more common to use? I would guess that ‘noch’ is because it’s simpler to use and I haven’t heard people use ‘wissen… mehr’ before (which is why I am posing this question).