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I came across this phrase for the first time, several times in the same novel. Is it much different from sich melden? Is it a more formal phrase?

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It’s used in different contexts, as crx explained.

sich zu Wort melden

→ means more or less to raise your voice. It’s connected to a public environment, e.g. a discussion, a presentation (if someone raises a hand and asks a question), etc. Can also used in a more abstract context, e.g. if a politician or an organisation joins a public discussion via newspapers. It is strongly connected to having an opinion.

sich melden

→ is either used in an informal context: if you call/write someone to tell that person you are “there”. “There” could be, e.g. at a meeting point, out of your business meeting and ready to go to lunch, or simply alive and wanting to say hi.

The other use is in class, when a student raises his or her hand. It can also mean that gesture in a context like the presentation mentioned above, but than it’s more neutral than sich zu Wort melden.

Während des Vortrags meldete sich Herr Müller zu Wort.

→ Mr. Müller has an opinion he wants to share, probably he disagrees with the speaker

Während des Vortrags meldete sich Herr Müller

→ Mr. Müller could have anything to say, maybe just a question, or maybe a flaming speech, who knows.

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From my native speaker view I would say "sich melden" means something like "Hey, here I am. You might give me the word" and "sich zu Wort melden" means "I am here and say. I want to enter the discussion". So both are similar but the second one is more firm.

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