1

Is there any difference between the two? I think さて is more formal than さ/さあ, but is that true? And are there any other nuances?

3

From a dictionary

さて

As an interjection:

  1. When moving on to next action, used for talking to himself/herself or invite others. E.g. さて、そろそろ出かけようか

The other two senses listed are rare, so I omitted.

As a conjunction:

  1. To change the topic E.g., さて、話は変わって
  2. To move on to next action. Similar to then
  3. To contradict the preceding sentence. Similar to but

さあ

  1. To invite or urge others. E.g., さあ、始めよう
  2. To answer vaguely in the negative E.g., さあ、よくわかりません
  3. Before the new action. E.g., さあ、やるぞ
  4. When interrupting the conversation partner.

  1. Same as さあ(1)
  2. When one is unsure. E.g., さ、これは困った. Similar to さあ(2)
  3. Same as さあ(4)

Difference

Speaking of difference in nuance, さて(1) and さあ(1,3)/さ(1) are relevant. As the definitions suggest

  • さて sounds more like the speaker saying to himself, thinking of the next action to take. There is no implied listener.
  • さあ sound more like urging. Usually it is assumed that it is directed at someone.
  • As such さて sounds less energetic and さあ more energetic.

A concrete example (of inviting さて/さあ) :

  • さて出かけようか is just casually calling attention of someone you are supposed to go out; A possible translation is Well, shall we go? If saying to himself, Now it should be time to go.
  • さあ出かけようか is similar, but more passionately inviting and expresses your looking forward to going out. Now let's go! It can be used in a saying-to-himself situation to encourage himself, but the use is rarer.

So the difference is not really formality, but さて does give the impression that the speaker is a mature person or at least calm. Probably that is what made you think さて more formal.

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  • I don't fully get the "さて sounds more like the speaker saying it aloud" nuance. Do you mean as opposed to an internal monologue? But if so, since さあ is an urging interjection, shouldn't it also be said aloud?
    – MegaZeroX
    Aug 13 at 12:22
  • 1
    Sorry that is my mistake. I meant an internal monologue/soliloquy. I edited.
    – sundowner
    Aug 13 at 21:24

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