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Oceans and seas are sometimes "Seen", sometimes "Meere" and sometimes "Ozeane". E.g:

  • Das Mittelmeer
  • Karibisches Meer
  • Die Nordsee
  • Atlantischer Ozean

Some belong to two groups, e.g. "die Ostsee"/"Baltisches Meer". Is the difference between the words purely etymological, or is there a difference in meaning? If so, is it merely oceanographic, or do laypeople know the difference?

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Es gibt auch ein Nordmeer, nördlich von Norwegen :) –  Phira Jun 23 '11 at 9:25
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"Baltisches Meer" is a very uncommon word in German. People would actually have some trouble to understand you if you used this, especially as "Baltikum/baltische Staaten" is used as an umbrella term for Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. To cover all states that border on the Baltic Sea, use the term "Ostsee-Anrainerstaaten". –  Jan Jun 23 '11 at 11:54
    
Also note that most people will just say "Karibik" instead of "Karibisches Meer". (Don't say there's a difference between these two - most people won't care :-)) –  Hendrik Vogt Jun 23 '11 at 17:21

3 Answers 3

up vote 11 down vote accepted

I think the usage is loosely coupled to the size of the water body, with Ozean being the largest, Meer coming second, and then See*. For some contradictions of the definitions I give here (and that's why it's only "loosely coupled"), also consult Gigili's answer.

There are very few oceans (Wikipedia lists five of them) and their group is closed, i.e. there's little discussion about what else could be an ocean.

Meer can be used to describe almost any saltwater body that is not a lake. Unfortunately, some saltwater lakes are bearing names with "Meer" in them, such as the "Kaspisches Meer" (Caspian Sea) or the "Totes Meer" (Dead Sea). To add to the general confusion, "Meer" also means "lake" in Low German and Dutch, so there are some (a few) freshwater Meere such as the "Steinhuder Meer" or "Zwischenahner Meer". To most non-locals though, those names sound similarly strange as to non-native speakers.

For See*, there are two meanings: "Meer im allgemeinen Sprachgebrauch" and "Nebenmeer - einen durch Inselketten o.ä. abgegrenzten Randbereich eines Meeres", which doesn't help with the aforementioned confusion :-)

Concerning the difference between See* and Meer, I think most people don't bother, they just go with the main name for the water body in question and don't take offense if it's called the other way. Conversations like this are perfectly normal:

A: Wir fahren im Sommer ans Meer.

B: Wohin geht's?

A: An die Ostsee.

Personally, I would expect Meer to be larger than See* and wouldn't call the Mediterranean Sea(Mittelmeer) or the Pacific ocean (Pazifik) a See*, but that's just a gut feeling.

*female version: if it's not a lake, always use the female article: die See. See Hendrik's answer for more details on the gender of See.

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Regarding "always female", "der Alpsee" is close to here. –  Tim N Jun 23 '11 at 9:38
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@Tim yes, but that's a lake :-) –  Jan Jun 23 '11 at 9:39
    
@Jan, re your last edit: The Kaspisches Meer and the Totes Meer are saltwater bodies that are lakes :-) But the Großer Salzsee is also a lake and carries See in its name ... –  Hendrik Vogt Jun 24 '11 at 7:52
    
@Hendrik: oh boy, what a mess :-) "Großer Salzsee" is not a problem, since it's "der See", not "die See". Completely different topic there ;-) "Kaspisches Meer" and "Totes Meer" are exceptions as per Gigili's answer, although I could make this a bit clearer... –  Jan Jun 24 '11 at 7:58
    
@Jan: I just wonder, does the salt contribute to them being Meere? –  Hendrik Vogt Jun 24 '11 at 8:03

Let me expand on the gender of "See" that Jan already mentioned. It's very important not to confuse der See (the lake) and die See (the sea). One thing you can be sure about: if you hear der See, then always a lake without connection to the sea is meant. On the other hand, some lakes do carry the name Meer, which Jan explained etymologically.

Confusion can also be caused by the synonymous usage of die See and das Meer. You can say both

Wir fahren im Sommer ans Meer.

and

Wir fahren im Sommer an die See.

Both are perfectly OK and mean the same.

Finally let me mention that another word for Ozean is Weltmeer.

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I know that this answers the question only tangentially. Please let me know if you think it's too tangential. –  Hendrik Vogt Jun 23 '11 at 17:12
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It's definitely useful information (and too long for a comment). –  Tim N Jun 23 '11 at 17:18

About the difference:

  • It doesn't have anything to do with "size" , contradiction:

Das Meer, das zwischen der Balkanhalbinsel und Kleinasien liegt, misst dagegen nur 11 500 Quadratkilometer und käme damit auf der Rangliste hinter den größten Seen erst auf Platz 18.

  • It doesn't have anything to do with "salty water", contradiction:

Der Salar de Uyuni in Bolivien beispielsweise ist mit 12 000 Quadratkilometern der größte Salzsee der Welt. Er enthält etwa 10 Milliarden Tonnen Salz.

  • Meer is open to exchange water, but Seen are usually an uncorrupted inland water.

I think there's no special differences in their meaning that you can categorize them plus that sea is commonly used as a synonym for ocean. actually, most of them has the word "see" or "meer" in their name:

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An exception:

Das Kaspische Meer, Überrest des einstmaligen Weltmeeres Tethys, ist somit eigentlich ein See.

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Both Nordsee and Ostsee exchange a lot of water with the Atlantic. –  Tim N Jun 23 '11 at 16:09
    
@Tim N: As I said, "usually" plus that "ostsee" is also called "Baltisches Meer ". –  user508 Jun 23 '11 at 16:38
    
@Gigili: As Jan has already pointed out, hardly anyone will understand that your talking about the Ostsee if you say Baltisches Meer. And don't forget "Zwischenahner Meer" and others in northern Germany! –  Hendrik Vogt Jun 23 '11 at 16:54
    
@Hendrik Vogt: like "Kaspische Meer" which has meer in the name but it's a "See", "Ostsee" and "Nordsee" are Meer . –  user508 Jun 23 '11 at 16:59
    
@Gigili: Right, I just wanted to point out that there are more exceptions. –  Hendrik Vogt Jun 23 '11 at 17:13

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