kennen und wissen…

I love language. I do. I wonder sometimes why our american version of the english language has felt so limited to me at times even though it is, sadly, the only language I speak with any fluency.

I was thinking the other day about my high school German. I have not retained much over the years but there was this one thing, this one thought that struck me and never went away.

In German there are two words for the verb “to know.”

Kennen and Wissen

Kennen is for concrete things, persons, places (to be familiar with, to be aquainted with)
“I know that road leads to Brighton”

Wissen is for abstract items, concepts, ideas (to have an understanding of or to have knowledge of)
“I know that everything will be alright.”

They are not interchangable, they truly have their own specific meanings, however subtle they may appear. When I learned this concept sitting in German class I did not know what it was about kennen and wissen that was so appealing to me. I just knew that it held me somehow and then I lost it in the conjugation, I mean that literally. I cannot remember how to conjugate these verbs.

It’s interesting that only now in my life do I really know what it means to not just “kennen” but rather to “wissen” especially as it pertains to people, to relationships, to being known myself. I seek out, I desire, I require, I yearn for wissen…

I’m ready to move away from the kennen…although it’s where we do need to begin, I suppose:

“I know that you are 30 years old.”
“I know that you work at Borders Books”
“I know that you were born in the Midwest.”

It’s the wissen though…this is where we don’t just greet but where we live:
“I know that you have a beautiful soul.”
“I know that when you laugh my heart sings”
“I know that when I am old I will want to still be your friend.”

this is where I am today.


5 thoughts on “kennen und wissen…

  1. These are beautiful thoughts to make me THINK. I am remembering my old Latin classes. Often I will be reading something……anything, and the Latin will creep into my mind and distract me from where I am and take me to another place, another time, another meaning.

  2. I love this post.

    Just yesterday my husband was trying to explain the difference between these two words. (You did a much more thorough job, and German is his first language!) šŸ˜€

    There are a lot of German words we’ve adapted into our English-speaking household because of how perfectly they describe something. Except for all the hacking and spitting I tease my husband about, German really is a wonderfully descriptive language.

  3. It’s a very nice thought, and I hate to disagree with you on it, but that’s not quite correct. “Kennen” means to know something personally – like I know Bob, or I know NYC really well, or something. It means to be acquainted with. Wissen means to know as a fact – so “I know that road leads to Brighton” would actually be wissen, because you know that as a fact. You could say “Ich kenne die Strasse” (I know the road) to say that you know the road well, all its twists and turns and bumps, but to say you know where the road goes, you have to use wissen.

    Sorry, just a bit of German grammar nitpicking from a German teacher… šŸ™‚

  4. Hm. I’m sure you’re right, Leah. My source for the definition I gave (and my understanding from that point) came from this source:

    I suppose the dividing point of where I get turned around would be the word “fact.” You can know your math facts such as 1×1=1 and in your definition that would be “wissen” however according to this source it seems to point to more “abstract” things which speaks to me….erm, not so much “fact.”

    so, well, that’s confusing, yes? lol.

    thanks for the insight. I’ll keep the metaphor just the same.

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