In this lesson, we will take a second yet closer look at the words for “what” and “when.” This time, we will look at how to express these words outside of polite speech, in which case some variation will have to be taken into consideration.
When looking up “what” in plain speech, most people will be find that the expression is なんだ. As you can see, なに becomes なん. This is because /ni/ becomes /n/ to make pronunciation easier. This causes some problems, but for now, let’s see how なんだ is used.
What (do you want/is it)?
Sentence Note: Ex. 1 would most likely be said by a male speaker. All by itself, なんだ shows irritation at someone.
What the heck!
Sentence Note: Ex. 2 also shows irritation, which is amplified with the use of the particle よ. With that being the case, this isn’t a literal question.
Of course, we already know that なん is the form you use in polite speech. This is simply because です also starts with /d/.
What are your hobbies?
What is your job?
What is “God’s kingdom”?
Grammar Note: The use of とは is mean to seek a definition of what precedes it.
When not used in isolation, なんだ isn’t limited to irritated responses. Rather, the question tends to be philosophical. They also tend to be more commonly stated this way in the written language, but you can imagine sentences like Ex. 4 being spoken in slightly dramatic soliloquies.
What is mankind?
Another neat phrase that utilizes なん instead of なに is なんぞや. This utilizes pretty old grammar, which means most people typically only use it when they’re purposely trying to sound old-fashioned, but it can also be seen in things like textbooks to draw attention to a topic. For instance, if you see a heading that says “What is biochemical engineering?” you might see this used.
What am I?
Word Note: Keep in mind that 我 is the original word meaning “I” in Japanese and is still occasionally used in purposely old-fashioned expressions such as in Ex. 7.
In isolation, 何 is how “what” is usually expressed in casual expressions. Kids and female speakers tend to drag out the /a/, resulting in な～に, but this isn’t common in male speech. なんなの, however, tends to show up as well. This adds more emphasis to getting an explanation for “what” something is.
Of course, as a regular noun that can take on any case particles, you use なに. At the end of a sentence, it is rarely followed by the particle か. When it is, the question sounds as if it is a part of narration or the title of some discussion in some form of presentation/writing.
What would be good for souvenirs?
What is that?
What is a tsunami?
With some particles, なに may emphatically alternatively become なんに with certain particles, particularly も. However, it’s also important to note that the combination にでも causes なに to become なん most of the time (as seen in Ex. 12).
Oh, no, it’s nothing.
You can become anything.
In compounds, なん and なに are used in fundamentally different situations. なん is used with counter phrases to mean “how many…” なに is used to mean “what kind…” There is one exception in particular that must be noted, which is何曜日 (what day of the week?). Although its traditional reading is なにようび, it is most frequently pronounced asなんようび. This is because most speakers find this reading easier to pronounce. Now, let’s return to the main difference between these two readings with the following examples.
In total, how many colors are there?
As for the national flag of Denmark, two colors are used.
What color paint should I buy?
What color does it look like?
In total, how many prefectures are there in Japan?
Phrase Note: Most people will answer this question by giving the number of prefectures that are actual 県, not those that are 都道府.
What prefecture is Takeshima in?
What club/department do you belong to?
About how many copies should I make?
What nationality is he?
How many siblings do you have?
なにで vs なんで
One rather difficult challenge presented by “what” that confuses students is the difference between なにで and なんで. The use of the particle で here is used to show means/method/composition. In this sense, なにで is almost always the reading used.
What determines the color of lipstick?
What did you make this juice with?
What are nails made of?
What should I use to study with for the Kanji that appear in the entrance exam?
What should I use to study with for sentence structure?
How should I study the constitution?
Technically, however, なんで is a valid pronunciation for this purpose, and there are speakers who use it to mean as such. It is not the case, though, that most speakers use it this way. This is because なんで usually means “why?” Yet, this is still covered in most materials directed at foreigners, erroneously as a ubiquitous usage with this exact reading.
As to why なんで seldom replaces なにで, the reason can simply be explained by the simpler pronunciation. As to when this replacement happens, means of transportation is the usual circumstance. Its use is meant to simply and innocently ask by what means of transportation the listener travels from Point A to Point B.
Sakai: Mr. Sadamura, when will you be going to the Yokohama office?
Sadamura: I’m going on Wednesday.
Sakai: [By what means/how] will you be going?
Sadamura: I’m going by plane.
Again, though, なにで would be most common. As for other means to say “how,” there is a caveat to using なにで over the usual どうやって or some other expression. As stated above, it simply asks by what means someone travels. The answer shouldn’t describe manner.
How’d you get here?
How did you come?
Sentence Note. In Ex. 31, the question is open-ended enough for the listener to respond with something like “by camouflaging myself,” which would be an inappropriate response to Ex. 30.
What did you use to come here?
Sentence Note: In Ex. 32, the question is out-of-place as a typical question one would ask in Japanese, but if you were to ask this to someone, you would inevitably get a smart-aleck reply on the lines of “by using my legs.”
In the same vein of thought, even when a verb primarily used for movement is used in a different sense, なにで・なんで can be seen, again, with なにで being most preferred.
Alright, what will we go with?
The three expressions that you will need to pay most attention to not confuse are いつ (when?), 何時 (what time?), and 何時間 (how many hours?).
When do you go to sleep?
How many hours do you sleep?
What time do you go to sleep?
When does the meeting end?
What time will you return home today?
When will mankind become able to go to Mars, I wonder?
I had fallen asleep before I knew it.
Phrase Note: いつの間にか is a set phrase meaning “before one knows it.”
Aside from these three basic expressions, there are also the phrases いつ頃 (about when?) and いつなんどき (at any moment). As you can see, the latter comes from an emphatic version of いつ, which isn’t really used in literal questions. However, you may notice that it peculiarly has なんどき in it, which does happen to be an old-fashioned variation of 何時. This is rarely used outside the phrase いつなんどき, but if you do see it elsewhere, the context will be very specialized.
About when will it be completed/you will complete it?
What time is it? It’s ramen time!
Sentence Note: This was a line to a very old ramen commercial which would air on TV. As you can see, when なんどき is used not to literally ask for the time, but to ask “what time is it” as in what’s supposed to be going on. This, in normally conversation, would be conveyed with the phrase どの時.
I also have no clue when it’ll become needed.
It is not necessarily the case that you will never get into an accident.
Spelling Note: When written in 漢字, いつなんどき usually becomes いつ何時, but it may also be written as 何時何時.
Grammar Note: ～とも限らない is a verbal expression that follows adjectives/verbs to indicate “it is not necessarily that…”
Don’t ever forget to be hydrated.