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Could someone please explain to me the difference between "Sieh mal!" and "Guck mal!"?

I learnt "guck mal" as "look", but now I've encountered "sieh mal".

I've checked linguee.com and dict.com, but they weren't so useful here.

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The difference is chiefly in the environment where you would use the one and the other. "Sieh mal" is the more formal expression. "Guck mal" or "kuck mal" is the more colloquial one.

Let's try to make a list of similar expressions, ordered by degressive level of being formal (or ascending level of being colloquial):

Würden Sie Ihre Aufmerksamkeit einmal dorthin wenden?

Sehen Sie dort!

Sehen Sie mal!

Schauen Sie!

Sieh mal!

Kuck mal!

Guck mal!

Da, guck!

(There might be a certain degree of personal discretion here. Other German native speakers might put them in slightly different order.)

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guck mal (look)

is the colloquial form of schau mal

sieh mal

basically means the same, but is rather only used in idiomatic phrases like

sieh mal einer an (well, well)

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The verb gucken is not used in Austria, and I think also not (or just rarely) in Bavaria. In those regions you use schauen instead. So in those regions you can oppose

Sieh mal! vs. Schau mal!

The difference is the same as between sieh mal and guck mal:

  • gucken, schauen = to look
  • sehen = to see

The difference in meaning is the same in German as in English:

When you sit in a Café with open eyes, you will see (sehen) other people, the waiter, some tables, the floor, a cup of coffee on your table and many other things. You see all those things by accident, just because they are there. You see interesting things, and you also see lots of things that are so uninteresting, that you even will not notice them (like the carpet on the floor, or the handles on a window).

But then you take your book and start reading. Now you look (gucken, schauen) into your book. This is something that you do actively and targeted, opposed to see, that is not targeted and more passively.

The phrase ...

Guck mal! (Schau mal!)
Look!

... is clear. You are asked to actively turn your attention onto something. This matches exactly with the meaning of to look (gucken, schauen).

But ...

Sieh mal!
See!

... is, when you look (not see!) closer to it, contradictory. In both languages you are asked to draw your attention without raised attention onto a special target in an un-targeted manner. This is inconsistent and contradictory.

So theoretically, both "sieh mal!" and "see!" should not be used, because »guck/schau mal« and »look« are much better choices, but language often is irrational.

So in fact, when used in daily life, all those phrases mean the same. They mean:

Move your eyes to something special.

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