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I was under the impression that 安い is used for anything related to "cost", whereas 低い is used to mean low for all things general.

However, a simple Google search shows ~99k records for 低いお給料, contrasted to ~273k records for 安いお給料.

Is it proper to use 低い to mean "low salary"?

Or is it simply an example of usage corruption?

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Both of your links are pointing to 「安いお給料」 –  rintaun Nov 1 '13 at 11:24
    
@rintaun, should be working now... –  Pacerier Nov 1 '13 at 11:54
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4 Answers

up vote 3 down vote accepted

I agree that both 低い給料 and 安い給料 are acceptable, but the latter is far more common. On the other hand 低い収入 is common and 安い収入 is borderline acceptable. I make sense of this as follows.

給料 talks about money directly (containing the kanji 料, cf. 有料), and the way to talk about money is to use 安い・高い. Think of 給料 as salary. 給料 can be 安い, because it is a fixed amount of money for a fixed of time. 給料 appears on a single pay-check.

収入 on the other hand is a more abstract way to talk about someone's income and in that sense is only indirectly about money. A 収入 is 低い, because it is an average amount of money for a standard amount of time (usually a year). 収入 has to be calculated over several pay-checks, possibly from different sources.

In English, of course we say "low salary" and "low income", but from the difference of "salary" and "income" I don't think it's too far a stretch of one's imagination that "salary" (a one-off payment for a one-off job) could described to be "cheap" in Japanese.

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First of all, it's worth mentioning that Google counts may not be as reliable as you imagine.

But to answer your question, it's a little bit complicated. Generally speaking, when talking about salary, you will want to use 高い・安い to describe it. After conducting a brief survey, I found 低い給料 to be considered acceptable, but slightly unnatural. その会社は給料が安い is also strongly preferred over ~が低い.

There are also words such as 安月給【やすげっきゅう】, which cannot use 低 instead.

However, despite all of that, the opposite of the word 高所得者【こうしょとくしゃ】 (person with a high salary) is 低所得者【ていしょとくしゃ】.

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As rintaun wrote, Google counts are not that reliable. To advocate the use of a corpus, here are some numbers from the Balanced Corpus of Contemporary Written Japanese (BCCWJ):

  • 低いお給料 vs 安いお給料: 0 vs 0
  • 低い給料 vs 安い給料: 0 vs 16
  • 給料が低 vs 給料が安: 4 vs 22
    (I checked all the results, and I think that all of the results matches the grammatical structure we were expecting here, not something like 給料が安定している.)

I think that it is fair to conclude from this that at least in written text, 安い is more common than 低い when describing 給料, although both are used.

On the other hand, in the case of 収入 and 所得, 低い is much more common:

  • 低い収入 vs 安い収入: 0 vs 0
  • 収入が低 vs 収入が安: 10 vs 0
    (収入が低 gave 15 results, but 5 out of the 15 were different words from 低い; 収入が安 gave 8 results, but all of them were 収入が安定.)
  • 低い所得 vs 安い所得: 4 vs 0
  • 所得が低 vs 所得が安: 17 vs 0
    (所得が低 gave 21 results, but 4 out of the 21 were different words from 低い; 所得が安 did not give any results.)
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Tsuyoshi, Thanks for that resource. I've been looking for something like this. –  Kirk Nov 2 '13 at 2:00
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Pacerier,

Is it proper to use 低い to mean "low salary"?

Yes it is. I hear it and see it in print all the time. I don't agree that 低い sounds unnatural. My wife is Japanese and she agrees. You're specific example, however, (低いお給料)sounds a little unusual to me, I can't put my finger on it, but I think it's because the honorific. I've never heard that specific pairing.

If you check ALC you will find twice as many examples with 低い as with 安い。It's just a different way of saying it. As mentioned, for high salary you need to use 高い. Note that 高い means both 'high' and 'expensive' so you really have no choice there.

安い means cheap, and 低い means low. It mirrors English in that it doesn't matter whether I say "low-wages" or "cheap wages".

NOTE: you can also say お給料が少ない。 But if you find this confusing you don't need to use it, just understand if you hear it.

Or is it simply an example of usage corruption?

As above. It is not a corruption in any way. It is common. Here are samples from ALC's dictionary.

給料が低い
be ungenerously compensated
給料の低い
【形】
    low-paid(仕事などが)
    low-paying(仕事などが)
    poorly-paid(仕事などが)
    poorly-paying(仕事などが)
給料の低いパートの仕事
low-paying [low-paid, poorly-paid, poorly-paying] part-time job [work]
給料の低い仕事
    low-paying [low-paid, poorly-paid, poorly-paying] job [work]
    low-paying [low-paid, poorly-paid] occupation
    low-paying [low-paid, poorly-paid] vocation〔log-paying occupationの方が使用頻度が高い。〕
給料の低い職業
    low-paying [low-paid, poorly-paid] occupation
    low-paying [low-paid, poorly-paid] vocation〔log-paying occupationの方が使用頻度が高い。〕
給料が非常に低い
be paid very little(主語の)
給料が~より低い
be paid less than(主語の)
それらの仕事は給料の面では低い。
Those jobs are in the lower echelon in terms of wages.
給料が~よりもずっと低い
get paid much less than(主語の)
支払われている給料が~よりもずっと低い
be paid much less than(主語に)
低い給料
    low pay
    low wage〔通例、複数形のwagesが用いられる。〕
低い給料で働く
work for a low wage
低い給料をもらう
draw low wages
さらに低い給料でより多くの責任を引き受ける
accept more responsibilities for less money
比較的低い給料
relatively-small salary
比較的低い給料を得る
earn a relatively-small salary
これまでにないほど低い額の給料をもらう
take one's lowest salary ever
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