Difference between そう and 然う (そう) in Jisho / JMdict?

I’m trying to figure out when (and when not) the kanji 然 applies (or doesn’t) to the various words and phrases that contain the common word (or is it words?) そう.

Long story short, I found two distinct entries for the word(s) そう:

  1. Jisho.org: Japanese Dictionary (no kanji)
  2. Jisho.org: Japanese Dictionary (with kanji 然)

(You can use this search link to compare the two versions ‘side by side’: そう - Jisho.org)

Unfortunately, I’m still too inexperienced to really understand the difference between these two words. Are they really two separate words? Or are they just two dictionary entries (from the JMdict source) for what is essentially the same word?

In my heart of hearts, I’d really like to know:

  • if the origin (etymology) of the word そう is the same as the origin of the kanji word 然う, but it just ‘lost its kanji along the way’;
  • or, if そう is actually a different word, originally associated with a different kanji altogether, and people just stopped using that other kanji along the way;
  • or, if そう is a distinct Japanese word that has never had any kanji associated with it at all, and 然う just happens to have the same reading, a confusingly similar meaning, but is actually a completely separate word;
  • or maybe some completely different etymology I haven’t thought of.

But, even if I can’t get an answer for the etymology, I’d still very much like to know:

  • how to use them correctly,
  • and how to tell them apart (if they are indeed different words).

Any ideas?

They are distinct in that those are indeed different usages of そう. But, you’ll basically never see 然う. Ever. (EDIT: okay, probably too strong of a statement) So I wouldn’t really even worry about the fact that a kanji version exists. So, そう has many uses, but so do many other things (like の or から). Getting into a detailed description of all of them here might take a while though.

But to answer your original question, the dictionary I’m looking at says that the “kanji-less” そう came from さま originally.


So, can you confirm that they are two separate dictionary entries for what are essentially the same word? That’s a big part of what’s confusing me.

See my edit to the post. They are not.

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Right. Thanks.

And just to be clear さま has more uses than just as an honorific. One meaning is “state, appearance, condition, etc.”

So you can see how that meaning applies to the “kanji-less” そう, because it’s used to say things that related to that meaning.

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Yes, thanks again. Also the kanji for さま, 様 is listed as the same for the common word よう, with quite a similar meaning to そう, so that connection makes a lot of sense to me.

The reason I focus on the etymology sometimes is because it helps me understand the deeper structure of the language better. It’s kind of like how knowing the Greek, Latin, or Germanic origins of words in English, or even just the parts of the words, can help in understanding their meaning better.

For example, the word ‘injustice’ has the part ‘in-’ meaning ‘not’, so it’s ‘not justice’. But the word ‘inflammable’ also has a part ‘in-’, but in this case it has a somewhat different origin (though both come to English from Latin), and means ‘liable to’ and definitely not ‘not’. Thus ‘inflammable’ means ‘liable to catch fire’, rather than the opposite ‘not flammable’.

So, even if I never run across そう written as 然う, I still want to know that it’s somehow related to that particular kanji origin. It just helps me learn the language better.

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You’ll probably only see it in poems or songs, like 唯然う在る様に, which is an interesting phrase for a few reasons:

  1. It uses 唯 instead of 只 for ただ
  2. The 然う part. I had to scroll pretty far down on my IME to get that to show up.
  3. And the 様 kanji as よう.

Cool, thanks, that’s a good point.

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