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Does “er spricht kein Englisch” imply “he speaks no English (at all)” or is it “he doesn’t speak English (well/right now)” – or is it simply ambiguous?

In some languages, there is a semantic difference between negating a verb (usually using nicht in German) and negating a complement (kein, nie…). Some languages also distinguish between general capability (können) and (progressive) action (tun, machen). The more general question is, how does German grammar handle this?

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    Please explain what you think the two alternative interpretations would mean, because I don’t see a difference between “doesn‘t speak English” and “speaks no English” (except that the latter sounds unusual). – chirlu Jan 22 '16 at 19:18
  • I mean the difference is "absolutely none" or "not as much as he could say he speaks english". – user20036 Jan 22 '16 at 19:24
  • Ich denke, Em1 hat die Frage verstanden, und ich ebenso. Ich finde sie berechtigt. Zwischen „er spricht Englisch“ und „er spricht kein Englisch“ scheint eine Lücke zu klaffen, aber wie negiert man den ersten Satz sonst? – Carsten S Jan 23 '16 at 13:50
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    I think the question is justified as a typical learner's problem with German. German and Dutch both have the peculiarity that transitive verbs are by default negated by negating the object instead, using kein. For native speakers of other languages this can be confusing because by default they negate the verb itself (as is logical), and so negating the object is an unusual, marked, thing to do that implies emphasis or a special meaning. – user2183 Jan 24 '16 at 7:22
  • @Carsten S, "Er spricht nicht englisch." – Iris Jan 24 '16 at 14:56
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You have these possibilities (I'm not sure if the list is complete):

Negating the object:

Er spricht kein Englisch.

This means: English is not a member of the set of languages that he is able to speak.

Negating the verb:

Er spricht nicht Englisch.

This means: English is a language that he does not speak. (In my mind this is exactly the same meaning as in the first version.)

Negating the ability to do something:

Er kann nicht Englisch sprechen.

This means: He is not able to speak English. (This is different from the versions before. The first two versions contain the possibility that he is able to do it, but doesn't want to, or doesn't use it for other reasons. For example, there are some Jews who know how to speak German, but refuse to speak the »Tätersprache« (Language of the Nazis)

Since (at least in German) a language can also be interpreted as an activity that needs some skills, like skiing, painting, driving, you can also negate it like an activity:

Er kann nicht Englisch.

This means: He doesn't have the skills to speak English.

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    What about: "er kann kein English."? – Quora Feans Feb 1 '16 at 23:32
  • "Er kann kein Englisch" is a colloquial version of "Er kann kein Englisch sprechen." When I want to say that I can't speak a language, I pretty much always use "Ich kann kein ____." – Austinh1 Feb 2 '16 at 15:15
  • Als Muttersprachler: Er kann nicht Englisch macht keinen Sinn für mich. It is just als strange as "he can no English". – user20176 Feb 2 '16 at 20:01
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German speakers have a strong tendency to negate the direct objects of transitive verbs instead of the verbs themselves. We can still see the difference when we pay attention to what we are negating and it actually matters. But whenever the difference doesn't matter or negating the object technically doesn't make sense, then we usually negate the object instead of the verb. In fact, negating a transitive verb itself can sound a bit formal or unnatural.

There are some restrictions on when this can be done. When the direct object has a definite article or a demonstrative, you can't negate it with kein. When it has an indefinite article (including the indefinite plural case, in which no article is needed), negation with kein or keine feels very natural. As you can see from the example, the construction is so popular that it has already been extended to singular nouns which also come without any article, as in "Er spricht Englisch".

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