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The Difference Between Wissen & Kennen In German Posted by on Mar 23, 2022 in Language

Guten Tag! As requested by a blog reader, today’s post is going to look at the difference between two verbs that are very similar, but different: wissen (to know) and kennen (to know)! Why are there two verbs for ‘to know’ in German, instead of one? Can they be used interchangeably, or are there distinct rules for each? Let’s clear up the confusion surrounding the verbs wissen and kennen!

Wissen and kennen: present tense conjugations

I always like to include the present tense conjugations when dealing with specific verbs, so you can get a feel for how they look, first and foremost:

Wissen: To know

Ich weiß – I know
Du weißt – You know (informal)
Er/sie/es weiß – He/she/it knows
Wir wissen – We know
Ihr wisst – You know (plural)
Sie wissen – You know (formal)
sie wissen – They know

Kennen: To know

Ich kenne – I know
Du kennst – You know
Er/sie/es kennt – He/she/it knows
Wir kennen – We know
Ihr kennt – You know (plural)
Sie kennen – You know (formal)
sie kennen – They know

What’s the difference?

This is one case where two German verbs with the same meaning are used very differently to one another.

Wissen

wissen

Photo by Siora Photography on Unsplash

Simply put, the verb wissen is used when dealing with knowledge and facts. It is used in conjunction with question words such as wo (where), wann (when), wie (how) and was (what). Here are some examples of the verb wissen in action:

Weißt du, wo meine Brille ist?
Do you know where my glasses are?

Ich weiß nicht, was ich sagen soll.
I don’t know what I am supposed to say.

Wisst ihr eigentlich, wie schwer das ist?
Do you know how difficult this is?

An easy way to remember this might be that the German word for knowledge is das Wissen!

There is also a Sprichwort (saying) in German: ‘Was ich nicht weiß, macht mich nicht heiß’ (‘What I don’t know can’t hurt me’- literally, ‘What I don’t know won’t make me hot’!).

Wissen = knowledge; facts

Kennen

wissen

Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash

Kennen, on the other hand, deals with familiarity. If you were talking about knowing someone or something, as opposed to a piece of information, you would use the verb kennen. It is sometimes translated as ‘to be acquainted with’. Here are some examples:

Kennt ihr dieses Lied?
Do you know this song?

Er kennt Maria schon seit Jahren!
He’s known Maria for years!

Ich kenne niemanden.
I don’t know anyone.

Kennen = familiarity; someone/something

Wissen and kennen: Incorrect use

So far, we’ve learnt that there are very distinct ways of using wissen and kennen, despite them having the same meaning. To illustrate this point further, here is one incorrect use of each:

X Weißt du Ludwig?
Do you know Ludwig?

Why? Because Ludwig is a person, and the question is about familiarity rather than knowledge, you would use the verb ‘kennen’ in this situation, instead of wissen (‘Kennst du Ludwig?’).

Here is another one:

X Ich kenne nicht, was ich sagen soll.
I don’t know what to say.

Why? Because there is a question word in this sentence (was: what) and it’s dealing with knowledge rather than familiarity, you would use the verb ‘wissen’ in this situation, instead of kennen (‘Ich weiß nicht, was ich sagen soll’).

wissen

Photo by Gabriella Clare Marino on Unsplash

I hope this has helped clear up any confusion surrounding the verbs wissen and kennen. To finish, test yourself! Which verb fits into each of these sentences?

Ich ________ nicht, was du sagst.
I don’t know what you’re saying.

_______ du diesen Film?
Do you know this film?

Er ______, wo er hingehen soll.
He knows where he is supposed to go.

Wir _______ diese Frau nicht.
We don’t know this woman.

*

If you liked this post, you might also like this one: The Difference Between Machen And Tun In German

Bis bald (see you soon)!
Constanze

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About the Author: Constanze

Servus! I'm Constanze and I live in the UK. I'm half English and half German, and have been writing about German language and culture on this blog since 2014. I am also a fitness instructor & personal trainer.


Comments:

  1. LFC:

    This is good stuff! One of my (many) problems in learning German is getting the different meanings of words which seem to be the same. English is also packed with the same problem. Some English words have the same spelling but can mean three different things depending on how they are pronounced.

    • Constanze:

      @LFC Glad it helped 🙂

  2. Rolf:

    Yes father

    • Constanze:

      @Rolf Glad it helped, son 🙂

  3. Gonzalo:

    Thank you so MUCH this was SO useful 🙂


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