7.10. Questions


7.10.1. Colloquial questions


It is quite easy to ask a question in colloquial Japanese. Simply say a sentence with a raising pitch at the end.

Kana: (ki)(small yo)(u)(ha)    (sa)(mu)(i) (period)
Romanization: Kyôwa samui.
Structure: noun
(today)
topic
marker
adjective
(is cold)
Meaning:It is cold today.

Kana: (ki)(small yo)(u)(ha)    (sa)(mu)(i) (question)
Romanization: Kyôwa samui*1?
Structure: noun
(today)
topic
marker
adjective
(is cold)
Meaning:Is it cold today?

*1 It begins with a low pitch and ends with a high pitch, because of raising.

You can say "It is cold today?" in English by simply raising tone at the end of the sentence, so I think this way of making questions is easy to understand. There is an exception, though. If the final word of a sentence is a nonpast form of a copula, which is either the plain (da) or the polite (de)(su), you need to remove it. You might be fed up with the irregularity of a copula. Note that past-form copulas are not removed.

Kana: (to)(ma)(to)(ha)    (ya)(sa)(i)(da) (period)
Romanization: Tomatowa yasaida.
Structure: noun
(tomato)
topic
marker
noun
(vegetable)
copula
(is)
Meaning:Tomatoes are vegetables.

Kana: (to)(ma)(to)(ha)    (ya)(sa)(i) (question)
Romanization: Tomatowa yasai*2?
Structure: noun
(tomato)
topic
marker
noun
(vegetable)
Meaning:Are tomatoes vegetables?

*2 It begins with a high pitch and ends with a higher pitch, because of raising.

In questions, the affirmation suffix is quite commonly used like this:

Kana: (to)(ma)(to)(ha)    (ya)(sa)(i)(na)(no)(da) (period)
Romanization: Tomatowa yasainanoda.
Structure: noun
(tomato)
topic
marker
noun
(vegetable)
copula
(is)
affirmation
suffix
Meaning:The fact is that tomatoes are vegetables.

Kana: (to)(ma)(to)(ha)    (ya)(sa)(i)(na)(no) (question)
Romanization: Tomatowa yasainano?
Structure: noun
(tomato)
topic
marker
noun
(vegetable)
copula
(is)
affirmation
suffix
Meaning:Is it true that tomatoes are vegetables?

Note that the copula in the affirmation suffix is removed because it is a nonpast-form copula at the end of a sentence. You have learned that the affirmation suffix (no)(da) "noda" often becomes (n)(da) "nda", but the change never occurs when the copula in the affirmation suffix is removed.

The nuance of having the affirmation suffix in a question is that you doubt what another person said or wrote. In this case, you might be told that tomatoes are vegetables and skeptical about that.


7.10.2. Formal questions


The grammatically stricter way to make a question sentence is just to add the sentence-final postposition (ka) "ka", which is a question marker. The plain nonpast copula (da) "da" is also removed when followed by the question marker (ka) "ka", but the polite copula (de)(su) "desu" is not removed when the question marker is used. That is a difference from the colloquial way.

Kana: (ki)(small yo)(u)(ha)    (sa)(mu)(i)(de)(su) (period)
Romanization: Kyôwa samuidesu.
Structure: noun
(today)
topic
marker
adjective + politeness
(is cold)
Meaning:It is cold today.

Kana: (ki)(small yo)(u)(ha)    (sa)(mu)(i)(de)(su)(ka) (period)
Romanization: Kyôwa samuidesuka.
Structure: noun
(today)
topic
marker
adjective + politeness
(is cold)
question
marker
Meaning:Is it cold today?

As you see, the question mark "?" is not often used with the question marker (ka) "ka", because having a question marker at the end of a sentence clearly means the sentence is a question. You can use both of them, though. Having both of them sounds like you are more eager to know or you are more surprised.

The formal way of making questions is not limited to the polite mode. You can use the question marker with plain sentences, but that is not very common in spoken Japanese, because you can be considered impolite. When you speak in friendly way, you use the colloquial way of making questions more often, and when you speak formally, you often use the polite mode. It is no problem to use it in written Japanese, where the polite mode is not necessary.

Kana: (to)(u)(ki)(small yo)(u)(ha)    (si)(small yu)(to)(da) (period)
Romanization: kyôwa syutoda.
Structure: noun
(Tôkyô)
topic
marker
noun
(capital)
copula
(is)
Meaning:tôkyô is capital.

Kana: (to)(u)(ki)(small yo)(u)(ha)    (si)(small yu)(to)(ka) (period)
Romanization: kyôwa syutoka.
Structure: noun
(Tôkyô)
topic
marker
noun
(capital)
question
marker
Meaning:Is Tôkyô capital?

Remember that the plain nonpast copula is removed in questions.


7.10.3. Yes / no and negative questions


Japanese has several words which mean yes or no. Here are the formal ones:

Kana:(ha)(i)
Romanization:hai
Meaning:yes

Kana:(i)(i)(e)
Romanization:îe
Meaning:no

The word (ha)(i) "hai" and other Japanese yes words are much weaker than the English yes. They often mean "I understand what you say", so you may think they are more similar to the English uh-huh.

Other Japanese yes words include (a)(a) "â", (e)(e) "ê", and (u)(n) "un", all of which have an accent fall at the first mora (high pitch + low pitch). These words are so colloquial that they are not used in written Japanese.

There are also other Japanese no words, such as (i)(e) "ie", (i)(ya) "iya", and (u)(u)(n) "uun". The last one might be difficult to pronounce because it has nasal sounds like English uh-huh and it also has a raising tone at the end. Anyway it is too colloquial to be used in written Japanese. The other two are also colloquial.

These Japanese yes-no words may be confusing for English speakers when they are used to answer negative questions. Negative questions have a negation word, such as "Don't you know that?"

Here is a colloquial negative sentence and its question form in Japanese:

Kana: (ki)(small yo)(u)(ha)    (sa)(mu)(ku)    (na)(i) (period)
Romanization: Kyôwa samuku nai.
Structure: noun
(today)
topic
marker
adjective
(is cold)
auxiliary
adjective
(not)
Meaning:It isn't cold today.

Kana: (ki)(small yo)(u)(ha)    (sa)(mu)(ku)    (na)(i)(ka) (period)
Romanization: Kyôwa samuku naika.
Structure: noun
(today)
topic
marker
adjective
(is cold)
auxiliary
adjective
(not)
question
marker
Meaning:Isn't it cold today?

Actually the question above has two translations, which makes answering to it confusing. The one is "Isn't it cold today", and the other is "It isn't cold today, is that right?", and answers for them are totally opposite. If the speaker means the former, you use (ha)(i), which means yes, to mean "Yes, it is cold today." If he/she means the latter, you use (ha)(i) to mean "Yes, that's right. It isn't cold today." How to answer negative questions using yes-no words depends on context, in particular among younger generation, because negative questions are not always questions but sometimes invitation and suggestion like the English phrase "Why don't you ...", so the best way to answer negative questions is to use predicators instead of yes-no words.

You can say one of the following answers:

Kana: (sa)(mu)(i)(yo) (period)
Romanization: samuiyo.
Structure: adjective
(is cold)
opinion
marker
Meaning:(It) is cold (today).

Kana: (sa)(mu)(ku)    (na)(i)(yo) (period)
Romanization: samuku naiyo.
Structure: adjective
(is cold)
auxiliary
adjective
(not)
opinion
marker
Meaning:(It) is not cold (today).

The opinion marker is used to share new information here. The person who is asked the question is considered to know better about the weather.

Please remember that only a predicator is necessary to make a sentence grammatically correct in Japanese. The answers shown above are correct sentences.

When you use the affirmation suffix, answers are easier to understand.

Here are examples:

Kana: (ki)(small yo)(u)(ha)    (sa)(mu)(ku)    (na)(i)(no)(da) (period)
Romanization: Kyôwa samuku nainoda.
Structure: noun
(today)
topic
marker
adjective
(is cold)
auxiliary
adjective
(not)
affirmation
suffix
Meaning:The fact is that it isn't cold today.

Kana: (ki)(small yo)(u)(ha)    (sa)(mu)(ku)    (na)(i)(no)(ka) (period)
Romanization: Kyôwa samuku nainoka.
Structure: noun
(today)
topic
marker
adjective
(is cold)
auxiliary
adjective
(not)
affirmation
suffix
question
marker
Meaning:Is it true that it isn't cold today?

The first sentence above is not a negative one at all. Using the affirmation suffix makes it an affirmative sentence, as its English translation indicates. So its question form, the second sentence, is not negative either. You can easily see (ha)(i) (yes) means "Yes, it is true. It isn't cold today." The use of the affirmation suffix thus makes Japanese negative questions easier to answer.


7.10.4. Interrogatives


Interrogatives are words used for questions to request new information. In English, wh-words are interrogatives, such as who, what, and when.

I explain three interrogatives here.

Kana:(da)(re)
Romanization:dare
Meaning:who (noun)

Kana:(na)(ni)
Romanization:nani
Meaning:what (noun)

Kana:(i)(tu)
Romanization:itu
Meaning:when (adverb)

Here is a base sentence for explanation:

Kana: (ka)(re)(ha)    (ki)(no)(u)    (e)(wo)    (u)(ri)(ma)(si)(ta)(period)
Romanization: Karewa kieo urimasita.
Structure: noun
(he)
topic
marker
adverb
(yesterday)
noun
(picture)
accu-
sative
marker
verb + politeness
(sold)
Meaning:He sold a picture yesterday.

Let's ask when he sold a picture. Use (i)(tu) "itu" like this:

Kana: (ka)(re)(ha)    (i)(tu)    (e)(wo)    (u)(ri)(ma)(si)(ta)(ka)(period)
Romanization: Karewa itu eo urimasitaka.
Structure: noun
(he)
topic
marker
adverb
(when)
noun
(picture)
accu-
sative
marker
verb + politeness
(sold)
question
marker
Meaning:When did he sell a picture?

All you have to do is just replace the word for time, and add the question marker if you use the formal way of making questions. You don't have to change the word order at all, so it is very easy to use Japanese interrogatives. You should raise tone at the end of the sentence exactly like plain questions even when you use interrogatives.

Now you can ask what he sold yesterday:

Kana: (ka)(re)(ha)    (ki)(no)(u)    (na)(ni)(wo)    (u)(ri)(ma)(si)(ta)(ka)(period)
Romanization: Karewa kinanio urimasitaka.
Structure: noun
(he)
topic
marker
adverb
(yesterday)
noun
(what)
accu-
sative
marker
verb + politeness
(sold)
question
marker
Meaning:What did he sell yesterday?

You can ask who sold a picture yesterday:

Kana: (da)(re)(ga)    (ki)(no)(u)    (e)(wo)    (u)(ri)(ma)(si)(ta)(ka)(period)
Romanization: Darega kieo urimasitaka.
Structure: noun
(who)
nominative
marker
adverb
(yesterday)
noun
(picture)
accu-
sative
marker
verb + politeness
(sold)
question
marker
Meaning:Who sold a picture yesterday?

You cannot use the topic marker for interrogatives, because they will never be a topic. You use interrogatives to request information, while topics must have been already talked about. That is why you have to use the nominative marker here to mark the subject of the sentence.

Using interrogatives for a copula is also the same. Just change words as follows:

Kana:(ka)(re)(ha)  (su)(zu)(ki)(sa)(n)(de)(su)(period)
Romanization:KarewaSuzukisandesu.
Structure:noun
(he)
topic
marker
noun
(Suzuki,
a family name)
suffix
(Mr./Ms.)
copula
(is + polite)
Meaning:He is Mr. Suzuki.

Kana:(ka)(re)(ha)  (da)(re)(de)(su)(ka)(period)
Romanization:Karewadaredesuka.
Structure:noun
(he)
topic
marker
noun
(who)
copula
(is + polite)
question
marker
Meaning:Who is he?

When the interrogative (na)(ni) "nani", which means what, is combined with a copula, it becomes (na)(n) "nan" for ease of pronunciation.

Kana:(ko)(re)(ha)  (ri)(n)(go)(de)(su)(period)
Romanization:Korewaringodesu.
Structure:noun
(this)
topic
marker
noun
(apple)
copula
(is + polite)
Meaning:This is an apple.

Kana:(ko)(re)(ha)  (na)(n)(de)(su)(ka)(period)
Romanization:Korewanandesuka.
Structure:noun
(this)
topic
marker
noun
(what)
copula
(is + polite)
question
marker
Meaning:What is this?

Its pronunciation is not changed in colloquial questions, because the nonpast-form copula is removed in colloquial questions as I have explained.

Kana:(ko)(re)(ha)  (ri)(n)(go)(da)(period)
Romanization:Korewaringoda.
Structure:noun
(this)
topic
marker
noun
(apple)
copula
(is)

Kana:(ko)(re)(ha)  (na)(ni)(question)
Romanization:Korewanani?
Structure:noun
(this)
topic
marker
noun
(what)

The interrogative (na)(ni) "nani" can be used to ask a number. It works as a prefix and becomes (na)(n) "nan".

Look at the sample below:

Kana: (ka)(re)(ha)    (go)(da)(i)(me)(no)    (o)(u)(de)(su)(period)
Romanization: Karewa godaimeno ôdesu.
Structure: noun
(he)
topic
marker
number
(five)
counter
(generation)
suffix
(-th)
genitive
marker
noun
(king)
copula
(is + polite)
Meaning:He is the fifth king.

Kana: (ka)(re)(ha)    (na)(n)(da)(i)(me)(no)    (o)(u)(de)(su)(ka)(period)
Romanization: Karewa nandaimeno ôdesuka.
Structure: noun
(he)
topic
marker
prefix
(x)
counter
(generation)
suffix
(-th)
genitive
marker
noun
(king)
copula
(is + polite)
question
marker
Meaning:What is x, where he is the x-th king?

I use a very strange translation here because translating it literally to English is impossible.

You can even ask the following question:

Kana: (ka)(re)(ha)    (ni)(zi)(small yu)(u)(go)(sa)(i)(da)(period)
Romanization: Karewa nizyûgosaida.
Structure: noun
(he)
topic
marker
number
(two)
number
(ten)
number
(five)
counter
(years old)
copula
(is)
Meaning:He is twenty-five years old.

Kana: (ka)(re)(ha)    (ni)(zi)(small yu)(u)(na)(n)(sa)(i)(question)
Romanization: Karewa nizyûnansai?
Structure: noun
(he)
topic
marker
number
(two)
number
(ten)
prefix
(x)
counter
(years old)
Meaning:What is x, where he is twenty-x years old?

For both of the questions, you must answer not only x but whole phrases which contain x, which are "the fifth king" for the first question and "twenty-five years old" for the second.


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