My sense is that the meaning is identical but that 少なくとも is somewhat more formal than 少なくても. Is that observation valid?

up vote 12 down vote accepted

According to 明鏡国語辞典:

すくなくとも【少なくとも】〘副〙
❶ 少なく見積もっても。最低限でも。少なくも。「経費は少なくとも百万円かかる」
❷ ほかのことはさておき、せめて。「少なくともこれだけは実行してほしい」
◈(表現) 副詞の「少なくとも」の意で「少なくても」というのは慣用になじまない。
「×少なくても/○少なくとも5人は必要だ(副詞の例)」
「予算は○少なくても/○少なくとも、精いっぱいやろう(副詞ではない例)」

It says 少なくとも as an adverb is not interchangeable with 少なくても.

I think 少なくとも cannot be replaced with 少なくても in examples like:

「少なくともこれだけは確かです。」(×少なくても~)
「少なくとも規則は守ってください。」(×少なくても~)
「少なくとも私にはそう聞こえました。」(×少なくても~)
「少なくとも、明日までには/10時までには 仕上げます。」(×少なくても~)

It seems some people (have recently started to?) use 少なくても with phrases containing 数字/数量, but it doesn't sound natural to me, and the dictionary says it's 慣用になじまない (it's not idiomatic / it doesn't match the idiomatic usage):

少なくとも百個はあります。(×/? 少なくても~)
少なくとも一ヶ月はかかります。(?/× 少なくても~)

When it's not used as an adverb (i.e. when it's conditional), of course you can use 少なくても. Here, 少なくとも is more formal than 少なくても:

どんなに人数が少なくても、決行します。(○少なくとも~)

  • 少なくても5人は必要だ is wrong? Wow I would have thought it was perfectly fine. So 少なくても is only correct as a conditional? – kandyman Dec 4 at 0:16
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    そうですね・・・ Yes, I think so, basically... The dictionary says 少なくても5人は~~ is not good, and I also think it's not natural... but I think some people use it that way in casual speech. – Chocolate Dec 4 at 0:31
  • Maybe 少なくとも = "at the very least + general statement" whereas 少なくても = "at least + conditional statement), where 'general statement' can also include numbers. – kandyman Dec 4 at 8:46
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    @kandyman At least in the mainstream usage, only 少なくとも is the established idiom to mean "at least, at minimum". 少なくても is just like saying "however few/little (it is)". – broccoli forest Dec 5 at 4:04

According to this abstract:

「~とも」は「~ても」と同様、逆接条件用法を持つが、「~ても」よりも古めかしい形式であると考えられており、現代語レベルでの研究はあまり進んでいない。だが「~とも」は「~ても」とは性質が異なり、また話しことばでは基本的には用いられず、もっぱら書きことばで使用され、上級以上の学習者にとっての理解(読解)・産出(学術論文など)には必要な形式である。

Basically formality and とも is used primarily in written text.

とも can't be used in structures that use repetition, whatever that means (I'm guessing having the ても modified words consecutively following one another without anything else in between):

2 「~ても」と「~とも」の用法

「~ても」にしかない用法としては、例1のような反復用法がある。例2のような不定用法は「~とも」にも出現する。

例1)これはまわりの温度が高くても低くても起こるので、氷が融けるのとはちがう。

例2)日本にもトナリ組的近隣集団がどのムラにもあるが、この集団はあくまで各戸単位の構成であり、どんなに機能が高くとも、各戸の孤立性を低くするものではない。

There times you only use 少なくとも

「~とも」に特徴的な副詞句「少なくとも」が限定するものには、数量・時期の他、主体・観点などがある。

少なくとも is also much more common than 少なくても: 4,961 vs <548 (searching for 少なくて) results in the The National Institute for Japanese Language and Linguistics corpus.

Also see "高{たか}くっても" vs. "高くとも"、"低{ひく}くっても" vs. "低くとも", etc. usage?

  • Can I ask you searched that corpus? Is there a free online user interface? – kandyman Dec 4 at 8:47
  • @kandyman nlb.ninjal.ac.jp/search – Ringil Dec 4 at 12:52
  • Sorry but I don't follow how you managed that search from the link you posted. First, you have to use 少ない as a headword or no results appear. Then from the グループ別 tab, I can't find comparisons for 少なくても and 少なくとも. I'm obviously doing something wrong, but can you explain how to get those results from the link you posted? Thanks! – kandyman Dec 4 at 13:30
  • For example, using a different site to search the BCCWJ, I found 4957 instances of 少なくとも and 178 instances of 少なくても. kotonoha.gr.jp/shonagon – kandyman Dec 4 at 13:37
  • @kandyman Searching directly for 少なくとも, I get 4961 on the site. For 少なくても, I searched 少ない -> 少ない+助詞 (under the 助詞 section on the left), then you can see 少なくて is 548. I inspected a bunch of the terms and confirmed this includes も so thats why I said < 548. Hope that makes sense. – Ringil Dec 4 at 14:29

That's right. Both "少なくとも" and "少なくても" means "at least" in English.

And, "〜くても" is a colloquial expression for "〜くとも" in Japanese.

  • Do you mean that any i-adjective can also use ~くとも instead of ~くても? For example 早くとも or 広くとも? – kandyman Dec 3 at 17:18
  • looks that way... I wonder if one form is preferred over another, and what reasons there are for that, if it's true... – ericfromabeno Dec 3 at 17:46
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    Not really interchangeable in some cases. Most of the time in modern Japanese, 少なくとも is used as an adverb, whereas 少なくても is not, so incomplete answer – user31974 Dec 3 at 18:05

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