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The 〜そう form means "seemingly 〜" and is usually conjecture made based on first-hand information. This usually means seeing something or hearing about something and making a conjecture, e.g., おいしそう when seeing the food. (Presumably, first-hand information would extend to ESP, psychic visions, etc., if you believe in that.)

Now, it's hard to imagine that this would ever apply to かわいい based on visual first-hand information; since you're actually seeing the thing, there's no guessing about whether or not it's cute. However, it would be possible to make a "seemingly cute" conjecture if the first-hand information was hearing a description of something. For example, maybe your friend is describing their new puppy to you. Upon hearing the description you might respond that it seems cute.

By the rules, かわいい (sometimes written 可愛い) would then become かわいそう【可愛そう】. Unfortunately, this coincides with かわいそう【可哀相】 meaning "pathetic; pitiful; sad".

  1. Is the "seemingly cute" かわいそう even used practically in the way I mentioned (or some other way)?
  2. If so, is context enough to distinguish which of the two words it's actually supposed to be? Or should you just avoid it altogether? Because I can think of a context where it would still be ambiguous.

    "My new puppy is small, and fluffy, and likes to play ball. But a cat attacked him the other day".
    "かわいそう" → (Is it "Seems cute" or "Poor thing"???)

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There is no context that I know of where "かわいそう" will be heard as "seems cute". This pitfall is such a common mistake of Japanese beginners that I think it's become a sort of cliché. –  Dave Sep 14 '11 at 3:24
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I'm a Japanese native and I occasionally make this mistake. Yeah it never means "seems cute" –  Enno Shioji Sep 15 '11 at 2:48
    
@EnnoShioji: Out of interest, if it never means "seems cute", what mistake do you make? Somebody says "pitiful" and you at first hear "seems cute", or you actually sometimes say "seems cute" before realizing people will hear "pitiful"? –  hippietrail Mar 13 at 12:34
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@hippietrail: The later. I'm like えーそれめっちゃかわいそう! ...wait... –  Enno Shioji Mar 13 at 16:04

4 Answers 4

up vote 8 down vote accepted

From what I've read, the original meaning of "かわいい" had less to do with "cuteness", and more to do with inherent qualities such as weakness, small size, docility, etc., that engender a feeling of pity. As far as I recall, the change in meaning to "cute appearance" is fairly recent. So it could be that either "かわいそう" just hasn't caught up with the new meaning yet, or is useful enough retaining the older meaning that it's unlikely to change.

Additionally, as a conjecture (and keep in mind that it's just a conjecture: I don't feel 100% confident about this), I think there may be a tendency to use ~そう to express qualities that are not immediately visible, i.e. that are inferred rather than seen. For things judged by outside appearance only, it may be that the construction "~く/に みえる" is more natural. So, in your example, maybe "かわいく見える" would give the "It looks cute" meaning. My sense is that "かわいそう" doesn't give this meaning.

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The Wikipedia entry on 可愛い agrees with your explanation on how かわいそう (meaning “pitiful”) originates from the word かわいい. (I do not know how reliable the Wikipedia entry is.) –  Tsuyoshi Ito Sep 14 '11 at 3:17

First of all, I do not think that people use かわいそう to mean “seemingly cute.” But I cannot pin down the reason of this.

I think that it is at least partly because かわい+そう would have the same form as かわいそう meaning “pitiful.” However, I am not sure if this is the only reason.

As you noticed, かわいい describes appearance. I cannot think of a context where 白そう or 青そう (or other colors plus そう) is used naturally, and it does not seem to have anything to do with ambiguity. This may support an argument that かわい+そう is not used because かわいい describes appearance.

However, 明るそう (“seemingly bright”) is used (and it is not limited to figurative usage such as 明るそうな未来). For example,

いかにも明るそうな電球でした。

(This example describes large lamps on a squid-fishing boat, which are used to attract squids at night. Because the author saw the boat during the day, the lamps were not turned on and the author described the lamps as “seemingly bright.”)

…ルームランプを消費電力が少なくて白くて明るそうなLEDに変えてみました。

(Here an LED room light is described as “seemingly bright” probably because the description is from the perspective at the moment before the author changed the room light to the LED light.)

This means that そうだ meaning “seemingly” can be sometimes attached to a word describing appearance. This is why I am not sure about the exact reason why かわい+そう is not used.

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函館に行きたいなぁ~。 Is the webmaster making a funny here 「イカにも明るそうな電球」, I wonder? –  rdb Sep 14 '11 at 7:46
    
@rdb: That is quite possible, and I should have noticed it! –  Tsuyoshi Ito Sep 14 '11 at 12:05

My answer builds off of rdb's answer.

My understanding is that ~そう for usage of "seems" cannot be used for actual information that is apparent. I.e. you can't say "she looks cute" using そう for someone you are looking at. Though, you get on the slippery slope when you want to say something like "she sounds cute" after you get off a phone conversation. But then I think you'd use the "~く/に 聞こえる" grammatical pattern for that.

In terms of using "~く/に みえる", rdb is right in that gives a completely different meaning to what you are looking at. I have always thought about みえる as saying "She looks cute (but normally doesn't/shouldn't)" connotation built in.

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Does this mean that blind and visually people never use ~そう or that they shouldn't use it? –  hippietrail Mar 13 at 12:36
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@hippietrail I don't think so. ~そう expresses a feeling you get about something and this answer says that this feeling should not be "actual information" or an obvious fact. But this feeling needn't be visual, so blind people can very well use ~そう, e.g. being described an X, they might respond 良さそうですね "Seems/sounds like a good X" (where X can be anything). (Or all of this can happen over the phone, where it's irrelevant, whether someone is blind or not.) –  Earthliŋ Mar 13 at 21:57

I hear かわよさそう used frequently as a substitute for かわいそう, and sometimes its altered companion, かわよい. I presume it's very slangy and I feel perhaps a bit feminine, but it does exist nonetheless. Another workaround might be to use 可愛{かわい}らしい, which while technically different, at least approaches the intended meaning. As for when it's used, I don't think it breaks any conventions. I usually hear it when something sounds like it would be cute. Clearly this change is taking place because of かわいそう having the alternate meaning, but I think this is evidence that the concept of modifying かわいい in that way at least isn't abandoned entirely.

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Was going to suggest 〜らしい, but it seems you beat me to it. That'd be my workaround in this case. –  Kaji Mar 17 at 21:06

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