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Both さあ and まあ seem to be used as interjections that mean something like "well", "hm", et cetera (or perhaps just as filler words). Is there any difference in meaning between them?

(Differences I have noticed are is that まあ also seems to be a female interjection meaning "oh my!", and is used in the word まあまあ "so-so". Also when responding to a question one is very unsure of the answer to, a long drawn out さあ seems very common, and I'm not sure if まあ can be used there. Also there's this related question.)

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As an interjection, they have totally different meanings.

As you say, "まあ!" corresponds to "Oh my!" and is decidedly female. But, "さあ" can be used only in this way (I think):

A: "Shouldn't we start now?

B: "oh, I don't know. . . ."

A: "さあ! (C'mon!)"

In other words, さあ indicates encouragement or invitation. You sometimes hear "さあさあ!", which is just a repetition of the above さあ and its meaning is the same as the single さあ but just with more emphasis.

The other uses you mention aren't interjections. まあまあ is quite different (you can call it a separate word) and as you say it means "so-so". Another まあまあ is

Father (to his daughter): "Get out of my house!"

Mother: "まあまあ, she say she won't do it again, so forgive her this time."

I'm not sure if we should count this as an interjection. We could say it is a fixed phrase to mean "calm down" or "be lenient/patient" or both at the same time.

On the other hand, look at this this conversation:

A: "Do you know which team won yesterday?"

B: "さあ . . . (I'm not sure)"

This one is again quite different from the interjection さあ。You can think of this さあ as a fixed phrase meaning "I'm not sure".

Another possibility is the suffix(?) さあ as in "昨日さあ". This さあ is used to add emphasis on the preceding word and it doesn't have a particular meaning itself.

I'm not sure if I have covered all possibilities, but off the top of my head, I think I have.

  • Thank you for the answer! Can まあ also be used for the "I'm not sure" meaning? – Malper Aug 11 '16 at 5:51
  • Also, I've definitely heard まあ used as a filler (like "um" in English). Can さあ be used that way as well? – Malper Aug 11 '16 at 5:51
  • > Can まあ also be used for the "I'm not sure" meaning? – Ryo Aug 12 '16 at 7:55
  • > Can まあ also be used for the "I'm not sure" meaning? Kind of. I mean, there can be such a situation where まあ can be translated as "I'm not sure." For example, A: "Are you busy now?" B: "まあ . . . " A: "Are you, or are you not?" . . . This まあ is used to indicate ambiguity and is basically the same as まあ in まあまあ (so-so). "I can't definitely say yes or no" is the basic message of まあ. – Ryo Aug 12 '16 at 8:02
  • Actually, I'm not familiar with how this Q & A system works. Should I edit my formal "Answer" to reflect this reply to your comment? – Ryo Aug 12 '16 at 8:03

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