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Strange as it may sound (to me at least), it seems that it is correct, rather than (more logical sounding to me)

Ich kenne Englisch

Is that some kind of historical accident that "können" has acquired the meaning of "to know" in this context? Or is it a contraction of eg

Ich kann Englisch sprechen

and the infinitive at the end at some point was dropped but without touching the rest of the sentence and it just stuck?

Would "kennen" be correct as well? Also, can we also say

Ick kann Geografie

or Geschichte, etc. or does it only apply to languages?

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2 Answers

up vote 11 down vote accepted

The verb können means to have skills, to be able to do sth., or to know sth., so it's not only an auxiliary verb like in English. That's why

Ich kann Englisch

means

I'm proficient in English

in its closest direct translation. You see, it's no contraction to

Ich kann Englisch sprechen.

Furthermore,

Ich kenne Englisch.

would just mean, you're not able to understand/speak it, though you've just heard about it, or you know some things about it. And you cannot reuse it with other school subjects than languages, because können is meant as having skills for a language. It's like the ability to read, write, dance, play an instrument, thus not appropriate to e.g. geography or history.

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Ich kann XYZ means "I'm proficient at/good at/capable of XYZ (to the extent of what's being talked about)" and it certainly applies to subject matters and skills other than languages. Ich kann Mathe will be heard in school; it doesn't imply that somebody is a grand master of math, just that he or she knows enough to, say, pass the test, do the assignment, or get a decent grade. –  divby0 Oct 16 '13 at 0:24
    
@divby0: I know the Ich kann Mathe thing, but it's meant as very colloquial for I've learnt well for the math test, I'm well prepared.. –  falkb Oct 16 '13 at 7:13
1  
Ich kann Stackexchange :) –  Emanuel Oct 16 '13 at 11:59
    
@falkb: Isn't "Ich kann (insert noun)" colloquial no matter what? –  divby0 Oct 18 '13 at 13:54
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In addition to the excellent answers, I'd just like to remark that this is peculiarity - to put it bluntly - of English, rather than German.

Most other Western European languages that I know make a difference between the meanings of "to know" as in "to are aware of the existence of..." and "to have learnt ..."; for example kennen / können (German), kennen / kunnen (Dutch), connaître / savoir (French), and I don't remember the Italian but it was similar to French.

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Im Französischunterricht mochten es die Lehrer dafür den Unterschied savoir/pouvoir herauszustellen. –  Carsten Schultz Apr 7 at 18:55
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