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Are 低い and 短い interchangable or do they have specific uses?

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2 Answers 2

up vote 12 down vote accepted

低い hikui is "short in height" or "low", 短い mijikai is "short in length".

  • 私は背が低い - I'm short (in stature)
  • 天井の低い部屋 - a room with low ceiling
  • 短いスカート - a short skirt
  • 髪を短く切る - cutting one's hair short

(Examples from プログレッシブ英和・和英中辞典)

A short piece of string cannot be 低い and calling a low bridge 短い would mean the wrong thing.

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5  
Heh, I had to read your answer to understand why someone would even begin to think that those two words could be confused. I guess you need to be a native English speaker to do that. :) –  Boaz Yaniv Jun 5 '11 at 1:54
    
Think of 低い only as "low" instead of "short". Then you should never confuse them. –  istrasci Jun 5 '11 at 1:59
    
@istrasci I think "short in height" fits better, otherwise you may be tempted to say 背が短い. Also the always confusing 鼻が低い. :) –  deceze Jun 5 '11 at 2:05
    
@istrasci Good point, neither translation is perfect really. :) –  deceze Jun 5 '11 at 2:32
    
actually, there shouldn't be any confusion once you realize Japanese is stricter than other languages about these things. 短い and 長い describe length while 高い and 低い describe altitude (i.e. position in relation to the ground). That's why you can say about a mountain あそこの山が高い, but you can't say about a person あの人が高い, in the meaning that he's quite vertically stretched, since 高い just means that his position is high (so if a 5 feet guy stands on top of a mountain he's higher than a 7 feet guy) . That's why you can only say that' his stature (背) is tall. –  Boaz Yaniv Jun 5 '11 at 3:06

I'm putting this as an additional answer because I think it's valid and would have probably remained relatively unseen as a "buried" comment above.

短い means "short in length": length of your hair (髪の毛が短い), time it takes to do something (テストの時間は短かった), or a short distance (スーパーまでの短い距離)

低い means "low". The confusion comes in when it means "short height" (背が低い). However, if you think of being short as having a "low stature (?)" or "(short because your head is) low to the ground", it makes sense.

Also, since you can describe other things besides height with 低い, it's better to remember it as "low": low volume (音量が低い), low temperature (気温が低い), low blood pressure (低い血圧), etc. We can see that when describing these types of things, the definition "short in height" does not make sense.

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+1 Well put. It is pretty obvious to me, so I had trouble putting into words as nicely. ;o) –  deceze Jun 5 '11 at 3:12
    
+1 for the extra details for 低い –  Lukman Jun 5 '11 at 3:13

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