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Both mean "lonely" and appear to be valid readings for 寂しい.

Is there a difference in nuance? Is this difference due to dialect?

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There's a little explanation on this answer japanese.stackexchange.com/questions/397/difference-between-and/… –  nevan king Jun 29 '11 at 19:12
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1 Answer

According to an answer to a similar question on Goo's oshiete site:

「さびしい」 is generally used in two ways (roughly equivalent to how the english "lonely" is used):

  1. an emotional state of emptiness, isolation, or a feeling of lacking
    • Examples: 「さびしい正月を迎える」「ふところがさびしい」
  2. quiet and empty of people or sounds
    • Example: 「さびしい山道」

These two meanings are essentially subjective and objective, respectively, and さびしい can be used in either. さみしい, however, generally tends much more toward the subjective/emotional meaning of (1).

As for whether it is dialectal, I do not believe that it is. The answer to the question linked above suggests that this b→m sound change is not limited to さびしい/さみしい alone, and cites other examples such as 煙る(けむる/けぶる)and [目を]つぶる/つむる.

Update: Inspired by @Axioplase's comment below, I investigated the b/m sound change, specifically regarding 「寒い」.

Wiktionary suggests that in fact, the origin of さむい is the same as さびしい: さぶし. At some point this split into さびし (which later became さびしい and subsequently さみしい), while さぶし also went on to form さぶい -- and subsequently, the modern さむい which we use today.

Unfortunately, I can't find many other (reputable) sources for the etymology of さむい.

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+1 for the sound change comment - that's exactly what this is. –  makdad Jun 29 '11 at 22:45
    
I think it's not only m->b, but m<->b. In a similar fashion, you also have 寒い【さぶい】. If I remember correctly, these changes are more frequent in the Kansai area than in the Kantô. –  Axioplase Jun 30 '11 at 1:54
    
@Axioplase: Actually (and I can't find any sources to support or deny this), I would hypothesize that the "b" is the older sound, even with 寒い -- Kansai dialect seems (at least to me) to tend more toward archaic forms, after all, and a one way sound change seems more likely than both. –  rintaun Jun 30 '11 at 2:41
    
I also think that it's a "b->m" evolution, but don't have time to verify that. –  Axioplase Jun 30 '11 at 5:26
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