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Ask Me Why | Basic Japanese Question Words | 基本的な疑問詞 | PART 1 || Kiki+Koko: Let’s NihonGO!! Japanese Language Learning Essentials

 皆様みんなさま、こんにちにゃあぁぁ!Welcome to Kiki+Koko: Let’s NihonGO!! Online, the blog in analog that’s the cog when you’re agog to jog through Japanese language and culture…-og. Last time on our Japanese Language Learning Essentials segment, we opened the door hidden in plain sight meant to get you closer to answers. As you were led through the door, you learned of the basic tools you need to get the answers you seek. However, this basic grammatical particle was only the first step. Whilst random words and an inquisitive particle can get you so far, you probably won’t uncover as much as you would wish. Oh, no, friend, there are words that shall soon be revealed to you. These words are at the crux of your questions. The concepts may seem similar at first, as in many languages, but in Japanese, these words are a bit different to what you may be used to… These words open many doors and are used many ways. These words are: 疑問詞, gimonshi—otherwise known as…. interrogative words.

In English, interrogative, or question, words are both the same and different to Japanese question words. They’re both the same in that they are literally singular words that are used to ask questions, but they are very different in the fact that Japanese goes to the next level. It combines concepts for more succinct question words. So, in one way, it will be much simpler in the long run to speak when using Japanese question words, however the way they are used and the different varieties of them may take a little getting used to.

But, no need to worry as we’ll make sure to take you through the basics to keep things simple, but we’ll also go in-depth to make sure you fully understand the concepts. If they don’t quite make sense at first, again, no worries. Once you experience them multiple times, it will start to feel a little more natural. Though there are some set rules, there are exceptions to the rules. Concepts such as those can really only become natural through multiple exposures and a working knowledge of at least some basic grammar.

Just as the structure of normal basic Japanese sentences, Japanese interrogative sentences hold a very different grammar to English questions. And, luckily enough, we have some basic sentence grammar that will definitely assist you in your journey. If you’re just beginning or you need a refresher, then we definitely recommend spending a little time with the previous ‘Essentials’ lessons. The ones that include the magical「です」and the particles will serve you well. But, that’s a good portion of them, as they’re important, of course. We’ll be right here for you when you’re ready to continue onto the heart of this!

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So, before we jump into this, there are quite a few interrogative words that will be important, but we’re going to introduce you to just a few at first, illustrating how to use them, then we’ll move onto more of them in the next lesson. This should keep these much more efficient to digest and keep things from being overwhelming. Learning a new way of asking questions can take time, but we’re here for you, and you can do it!! We’ll be with you every step of the journey!

Quick Introduction

This is going to include a lot of linguistic terms, but you don’t need to memorise these. It should just assist you in associating these in a way with what you already know in English… but from a Japanese language perspective.

In English, there are 疑問代名詞, gimondaimeishi, interrogative pronouns; 疑問限定詞, gimontenteishi, question qualifiers; and 疑問副詞, gimonfukushi, interrogative adverbs. However, in Japanese, basic question words include 不定称の代名詞, futeishou no daimeishi, indefinite pronouns; 数詞, suushi, numerical words; 副詞fukushi, adverbs; 連体詞, rentaishi, ad-nominal adjectives. What you should take from this isn’t classifying each of them, right this moment, but showing there are more categories that are different to English that cover a wider range of grammar.

That doesn’t mean the concepts don’t exist in English, but they’re expressed through vastly different grammar and verbiage, English taking a few words and Japanese using one to express the concept. So, in some cases, you’ll at least be able to use one word to express a larger concept, but in other cases, especially in the case of 数詞, suushi, it gets a bit less tasty, unlike sushi. But, we’ll save that concept for another time as it is quite vast.

We’re going to look at some of the basic ones that you’ll hopefully be familiar with in English. But, we’re going to focus today on a multifaceted word that may seem like it’s not much to look over, but it’s something we can’t completely contain within one lesson. We’ll continue onto the other basic question words, but for now, we’re going to do a bit of focus on this first one in order to give enough examples and help you get a grasp of question words in general.

Basic Question Words| 基本的な疑問詞

何【なに】nani /【なん】nan

‘What’

お名前は ですか。
おなまえは なんですか。
onamae wa nan desuka?
What is your name?

を 読んでいますか。
なにを よんでいますか。
nani wo yondeimasuka?
What are you reading?

and … ‘How many’ or ‘how much’
(but, never on its own!!)

本は ページが 枚 ありますか。
ほんは ページが なんまい ありますか。
hon wa peeji ga nanmai arimasuka?
How many pages does the book have?

This word is so versatile and so ubiquitously used for so many different occasions that we will certainly have to focus on 「何」on its own in another lesson. But, for now, this basic question word will serve you well! 

If you’ve partaken in any Japanese media or heard any Japanese speakers, you’ll have most likely heard the word ‘what’ many times due to the variety of uses. But, you’ll also notice that「何」 does not have simply one reading. You’ll sometimes hear なん, nan, and other times hear なに, nani. This is something that may seem confusing at first, but there are actually some rules to figuring out which one to use! (And, it will explain the other less commonly associated meaning mentally which is ‘how many’ or ‘how much’ which only comes when accompanied by another kanji)

When is it 「なん」, nan?

Though we mentioned that there are rules to this, these rules are more so like the pirate code, more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules. So, this is really just meant to get you started if you’re completely lost looking at the whole なん, nan, / なに, nani, schism. So, you’ll tend to say なん, nan:

• Before a copula

If you don’t know what a ‘copula’ is, we definitely recommend our lessons on copulaand even if you glean it from context clues, getting the full picture will be invaluable~!

When you’re just beginning, this will probably be the context you’ll use the most which is why you should definitely become accustomed to this reading when you see it at the end of a sentence before the copula.

ですか。
なんですか。
nandesuka?
What is it?

• When used as a numeral word like ‘how many’ or ‘how much’

This one may dive too deep into the pool of Japanese language that may get a bit frightening too early on. But, we want to prepare you for it! You know how fun swimming in the deep end can be! We’re here to point you from the shallow end to show you the wiggly lines at the other end where all of the swimmers with ultra tight goggles are speeding by. Soon, you too will have those goggles.

To simplify this beyond compare, there are counters in Japanese. These are special words that signify the item being counted. Now, if you want to ask ‘how many’ or ‘how much’ of said unit, you’ll usually use なん, nan, as in the previous example.

匹の 犬が いますか。
なんびきの いぬが いますか。
nanbiki no inu ga imasuka?
How many dogs are there?

• (Sometimes) Before a ‘t’, ‘d’, or ‘n’ consonant, (unless it’s meant to be a completely different word)

The divergence comes with grammatical differences. Let’s say you’re asking ‘how’ or ‘why’ someone is going to Japan. (The definition of nande can differ, but we’ll get to that in another lesson.) You would see:

 日本に 行きますか。
なん にほんにいきますか。
NANde nihon ni ikimasuka?
[Why/how] are you going to Japan?

However, if you were asking ‘by what means,’ it would be:

 日本に 行きますか。
なに にほんにいきますか。
NANIde nihon ni ikimasuka?
[How/By what means] are you going to Japan?

This may make things a bit more tricky, but usually, context clues will help.

When is it 「なに」, nani?

• Before a particle (Unless it’s meant to be a different word)

If you see this before a usual particle, that doesn’t have an ‘n’ consonant, then you’ll know for sure that this is a time for なに, nani. If you listen to a lot of Japanese speech, you should start to pick up on what sounds and feels natural. Usually things will follow what is easiest to say, but this may just be from a bilingual standpoint, so take that with a grain of salt.

In the previous example, we used を, so we’ll show you an example with :

が 起こっていますか。
なにが おこっていますか。
Nani ga okotteimasuka?
What is happening?

• Emphasise the question and informal no-copula endings

This may not come up in beginning speech, but the latter might, so we reckoned it important to include. Let’s say you’re trying to emphasis by saying: WHAT is that? informally. So, formally, you might say:

それは ですか
それは なんですか。
sore wa NANdesuka?
What is that?

You wouldn’t exactly be able to emphasis saying ‘naaaan’ but.. well, we guess you could, but it’s just more natural to hear:

それは !?
それは なに!?
sore wa nani!?
What is that!?

or even more extremely informally:

、それ!?
なに、それ!?
nani, sore!?
What‘s that!?!

• Indefinite nouns

What we mean by ‘indefinite nouns’ is when there is a noun that you are asking about such as 何語, nanigo, what language. But, this can definitely get tricky as this is where the differences become important. For example, though 何語, nanigo, means ‘what language’, if you said 何語, nango, it would suddenly turn into, ‘how many words’. This follows the rule from before about the nan pronunciation.

• (Sometimes) Before other consonants that aren’t ‘t’, ‘d’, or ‘n’, (unless it’s meant to be a completely different word)

So, there’s exceptions, but this is basically just the other side of the previous mention. Basically, if you don’t hear/see a character with those consonants, you should be safe using the other, sometimes. This would be like in the previous guideline about particles.

を 買いましたか。
なにを かいましたか。
nani wo kaimashita ka?
What did you buy?

What are some examples of exceptions?

Well, as we said before, there’s a lot of exceptions… It’s not fool proof, but there are times where the ‘nan’ reading can be both a numerical ‘how many’ and ‘what’ like in: 何日, nannichi. So, that could be ‘how many days’ and ‘what day’ as in a day of the month. Oh, days of the months have their own name. Don’t worry about that, yet though…. But, with that being said, there are some concepts that just take practise and experience, but we do hope these tips assist you in getting started as they’re worth keeping in mind.

Well, we bet when you started reading this lesson, you probably didn’t think it was possible to spend over 2300 words talking about one Japanese question word. But, that’s the dedication we bring to you every Monday and Friday— and Word of the Week Wednesday! We want to make sure to give you all of the tools you need to understand and use these words. If you’re looking for answers, you have to ask questions, and to ask questions, you can come to us to teach you how to ask them~!

Sometimes, if something seems too simple, then you may not be getting the full story. We’re going to let you take some time to let these sink in, then we’ll come at you with more basic vocabulary-styled question words. We’ll go over how to use these in greater depth with more grammatical implications.

We hope this helped you understand the basics of an interrogatory Japanese sentence and 「何」. Seriously, we barely scratched the surface with that bloke. But, maybe going through this was a bit difficult to suss out the pronunciations with the hiragana used. Well, we’ve got you covered! Just take a look at our Reading and Writing sections to revise / review / study. It will help your pronunciation, and it’s essential to learning any language. If you want to make sure your Japanese language survival kit is stocked with the latest tools, you can make sure you stay up to date by subscribing to the Electronic Mailing List of Tomorrow, today, found usually at the bottom of the site page or the sidebar on desktop. You’ll get the latest tools and resources to surviving in Japanese language in straight to your inbox. That’s articles, videos, podcasts, and more.

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♡Kiki+Koko

Categories: 話し方|Talk!, Japanese Language Essentials, Kiki+KoKo: Let's NihonGO!!, SpeRaToBo, 文法|Grammar!

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