Until recently I only heard the verb 불쌍하다 used to express the meaning “pitiful”, but just this past week, I came across two alternative wordings: 한심하다 and 애처롭다. Obviously that’s not something I can just let go unnoticed so I had to ask a Korean.
Broadly speaking it’s about:
1) the degree to which you can control the circumstances around you.
2) the speaker’s perspective on the event.
3) how “sad” the situation is deemed to be on some continuum.
If starting with point three, 애처롭다 is used to describe the most severe types of situations. The context in which I came across it was Harry Potter where it was used to describe the look that Hagrid gives Harry after telling him about the circumstances of his parents’ deaths. For this descriptive verb to be used, the situation has to be quite severe; e.g. losing family members, losing everything you own in an accident, being the victim of a natural disaster. These are objectively severe and sad events – being late for work might get you in trouble with your boss, but not quite enough for it to warrant the use of this particular verb.
The lines get a little blurry when it comes to 불쌍하다 and 한심하다. Both of them are used in more daily life situations, but the choice of words also says something about the speaker’s view on the events and the extent to which the speaker thinks that person could have influenced the events.
If someone breaks a valuable item that he or she holds dear:
불쌍하다: You feel sorry for that person because he lost his precious item – even if he did break it himself.
한심하다: It’s sad, but he could have been more careful.
If someone fails an exam:
불쌍하다: Poor thing, he studied so hard!
한심하다: Wow, that’s a shame… but that being said he should have studied more…
Now it definitely makes more sense why different words were used in different contexts to say “pitiful”.