The words for:

  • sea; and
  • lake respectively,

in Dutch, are:

  • zee; and
  • meer,

whereas the German translation of the same is:

  • das Meer; and
  • der See1.

This striking, almost completely opposing, contrast between the current Dutch terms and the German terms has been noted to numerous times, but my question is the following: which language has therewith diverged from a common linguistic heritage?

Please write as much information as possible, to enrich your answer. For example, I understand there are many derivative words in both languages, lending on either one of the phonetics.

1 Addendum by lemontree: Interestingly, accompanying the masculine noun der See meaning lake, German also has the feminine noun die See, which in turn means sea again.

  • Note that English actually parallels Dutch here - English has a noun, mere, that means "lake" but is nowadays mostly limited to poetic usage. If English and Dutch match but German is different, that could suggest that the Dutch/English model probably was the original one. Feb 26, 2017 at 1:04

2 Answers 2


The word Meer¹ has as its original meaning something like "stagnating water", see also the related word Moor "swamp".

Also the word See² originally had both meanings, and it was originally masculine. It stayed masculine in Southern Germany, where only lakes but no sea are known, but it changed to feminine in Low German where the sea is well known. In German it specialised meanings along that line: der See is now only the Lake, and die See is only the sea.

¹ Meer im deutschen Wörterbuch von Jacob und Wilhelm Grimm http://woerterbuchnetz.de/DWB/?sigle=DWB&mode=Vernetzung&lemid=GM02799#XGM02799

² See im deutschen Wörterbuch von Jacob und Wilhelm Grimm http://woerterbuchnetz.de/DWB/?sigle=DWB&mode=Vernetzung&lemid=GS23282#XGS23282


Given that - Slavic languages also use a root similar to "mere" for the sea RU: "mor'e", UA: "more", PL: "morze" - Romance language have similar roots: LAT: "mare", ES: "mar" etc

I'd imagine that das Meer originates from common PIE root for the sea and thus is can be considered a common origin

  • Actually it meant lake in PIE, but "see" is a Germanic word.
    – Anixx
    Feb 27, 2017 at 8:10
  • And there is a lake called Müritz in Northeastern Germany displaying this root. Feb 27, 2017 at 11:25

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