Schauen? Sehen? I just want to look!

Look! Did you see that?

As an English speaker you wouldn’t think twice about when to use ‘to look’ or ‘to see’. You just know.

But when it comes to learning German, do you use schauen or sehen? Or even kucken or gucken or kieken?

First of all, sehen is used when you talk about seeing something with you eyes. So, when you want to translate ‘to see’ you can only use ‘sehen’.

But when you want to translate ‘to look’, well …

The good news is, most of the times it doesn’t matter which one you use and it depends a little to where in German you are. The two formal verbs are sehen and schauen and the further south you go there more chance is to hear schauen, especially in Bavaria and also Austria. In the north it tends to be sehen.

I’m from the north of Germany and I have never used schauen, always sehen …. or kucken.

So, lets talk about gucken/ kucken first.
It’s only used in spoken German, never written (unless in a blog post explanation 😉) and mainly used in the north.

But why gucken and kucken? The spelling was always gucken, but the pronunciation is usually with a k, so when the spelling reform came, the spelling changed to kucken…… Except many people didn’t like it and continued to write gucken. Eventually Duden agreed that both ways are correct.

Kieken is also colloquial and only used in spoken German in Berlin.

That leaves the two formal verbs, schauen (schaute – hat geschaut) & sehen (sah – hat gesehen). As I said, schauen is used more in the south of Germany and in Austria and sehen is used more in the north. There are lots of prefixes and with those the verbs are usually interchangeable. You can use whichever of the two you prefer – or whichever of the two you hear more when in Germany.

Here’s a list (I hope I haven’t missed one. If I did, let me know)

  • anschauen, ansehen – to look at/ watch. Often used as a reflexive verb ‘Ich schaue/ sehe mir das Bild an.
  • aufschauen, aufsehen – to look up at somebody
  • ausschauen, aussehen – to look, appear. Das sieht/ schaut gut aus. That looks good.
  • durchschauen, durchsehen – to examine, review
  • hineinschauen, hineinsehen -to look into sth, peep inside
  • hinschauen, hinsehen – to look (there)
  • herumschauen, herumsehen – to look around
  • hochschauen, hochsehen – to look up
  • nachschauen, nachsehen – to check
  • umschauen, umsehen – to look around
  • vorbeischauen,vorbeisehen (but see next list) – to drop by/ call in
  • wegschauen, wegsehen – to look away
  • zurückschauen, zurücksehen – to look back
  • zuschauen, zusehen – to watch an event, but a spectator is a Zuschauer (not Zuseher, that word doesn’t exist)

And that takes me to the next list. The following words only exist with one of the verbs

  • hellsehen – to be psychic
  • hereinschauen – to look in/ pop in/ drop by
  • hervorschauen – to look out from under sth
  • überschauen – to overlook something, or cast your eye over something
  • übersehen – to overlook somebody or spomething, or deliberately not looking at something
  • sich verschauen – to fall for somebody (only used in Austria & Southern Germany)
  • sich versehen – to make an error
  • vorbeisehen – to overlook something on purpose, to look past something

How about ‘to watch TV’?

  • Ich schaue fern.
  • Ich sehe fern.
  • Ich gucke Fernsehen 🙂 (very colloquial, grammatical not really right, but often said)

Do you remember what the first sentence was in this blog post? I wrote: Look! Did you see that?
How could you say that in German?

You’ll find the answer below these videos.

Could she have sung ‘Sieh mal’? Yes! ‘Kuck mal’? Yes, but it would have sounded a bit childish, not quite as planned.

Could they have used’ Schau mal’ or ‘Sieh mal’? Yes, both would have worked fine.

Could they have sung ‘Wollt ihr das Bett in Flammen schauen/ gucken’? No, as here the meaning is to see, not to look.

Answer to my question:

Look =
– Schau/ Schau mal/ Schaut mal/ Schauen Sie mal!
– Sieh/ Sieh mal/ Seht mal/ Sehen Sie mal!
– Kuck (or guck)/ Kuck mal/ Kuckt mal! (But don’t use it when speaking formally)

Did you see that? =
Here only one verb is suitable, sehen.
Hast du das gesehen?
Habt ihr das gesehen?
Haben Sie das gesehen?

Do you feel wiser now and know which German verb to use? Yes?
We’ll see. Wir werden sehen 😉

Okay, let’s find out. How can you say ‘goodbye’ in German?

  • Auf Wiederschauen!
  • Auf Wiedersehen!
  • Auf Wiedergucken? No, we use tschüs!
Pin it now, read it later!

2 thoughts on “Schauen? Sehen? I just want to look!”

    • Absolutely! Hans Schau-in-die-Luft’ or ‘Hans Sieh-in-die-Luft’ just doesn’t sound right. As for the spelling, that poem was written long before the spelling reform and I doubt his name will ever be changed to ‘Kuck-in-die-Luft’ (Looks just as weird as my other suggestions!)


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