What's the Right Question Word in Japanese?
A lot of English question words start with "W." They mostly start with "D" or "I" in Japanese, plus the ubiquitous nani/nan ("what"). There seem to be a lot of them in Japanese for two reasons: one is that there are often different words for cases where we would use the same question word-- "how much" vs. "how old," for instance, both use "how," but are different words in Japanese. And the other is because of all those darn "counters" that I talked about back in the chapter on numbers.
Check out a few:
What: nani or nan
Where to: doko ni
Where at: doko de
Why: doushite or naze
Who: dare or donata
With whom: dare to
To whom [did you give something]: dare ni
Which (particular object): dono (object)
What kind of: donna
How (by what means, as in traveling): nan de
How (used to propose something, like "how about X?"): ikaga
How much [does something cost]: ikura
How many (also used for asking a person's age): ikutsu
How long will something take: donogurai
When (time in general): itsu
What time (specific hour): nanji
What day (of the week): nan-youbi
What day (of the month), or what date: nan-nichi
What month: nangatsu
How manu months: nan-kagetsu
What year: nan-nen
How many people: nan-nin
How many animals: nanbiki
What floor (of a building): nangai
You get the idea. The later question words use those counters I mentioned. For example, -kai is the counter for floors of a building. Ikkai is the first floor, nikai the second, etc., and so nankai is the proper question word for "what floor." In other words, there are as many question words as there are counters! And there are tens of counters! (You remember, there were ones for big ships, small boats, bottles, fruits, pairs of socks, etc).
Now, you may be saying, "Big deal! We say 'how many ships' in English, so it makes sense to say 'nanseki' in Japense, since -seki is the counter for big ships."
But wait. Seki is not the word for "ship." That's fune. And you can't say "Ikutsu fune" (literally, "how many ships"). That would be wrong; you have to use the counter. We don't have this structure in English.
One ship: Isseki, or to be very clear you could say, isseki no fune (literally, "one of ships.")
Five cats: gopiki (go means "five", but the word for cat is neko. -piki is the counter for animals.)
Depending how clear it is what you are referring to, you may not include the actual noun at all (like fune). You need it only for counters that are vague, like -mai, which is for flat, thin objects (paper, shirts, etc).
Some of the other question words contain those ubiquitous particles, like de or ni. We do this in English too, although to a less fanatical degree. Asking "with whom" or "to whom" is different from asking "who." German does this too. Anyway, on the fly it can be tough to remember the right question word.
How to ask Questions in Japanese?
Now that you're attuned to the importance of word order in English, you will realize that we detect questions only by the word order-- the real secret of the English question is to flip the subject and the verb. (Same for German).
For example, "He is going downtown" becomes "Where is he going?" or perhaps "Is he going downtown?" In other words, "is" is flipped to come before "he." Even if there is no question word, as in the second case, you know that it is a question, simply because of the word order.
In Japanese, this can't work because of the flexibility of word order, so questions must be formed a different way. There is (not surprisingly, perhaps) a certain particle that signals a question. Since the verb always comes at the end of the sentence, the clearest place to stick an extra particle that differentiates a declarative sentence from a question is at the end, after the verb. This tag particle is ka.
To form a question, just insert the question word in the position in the sentence where the answer would be in the declarative case, and then attach ka to the end of the sentence. It's like this:
She will read a book: Kanojo wa hon o yomimasu.
Will she read a book? Kanojo wa hon o yomimasu ka.
What will she read? Kanojo wa nani o yomimasu ka.
Who will read a book? Dare ga hon o yomimasu ka.
The choices of wa and ga have been glossed over in the above sentences. The chapter on Particles tells a bit more about why you would probably want wa for the first three and why you must use ga for the fourth.
What is Nominalization in Japanese?
To appreciate Japanese, you must learn to love nominalization. Nominalizing means turning things into nouns. You can do this with adjectives ("red" becomes "redness"), but the more interesting case is with verbs. In English, there are two nominalized verb forms: the gerund and the infinitive.
For the verb "walk," the gerund is "walking" and the infinitive is "to walk." (The gerund is only for noun uses of "walking." It also has adjective and adverb uses, not touched on here). We make various constructions where these objects act as nouns, such as "To walk is life's greatest pleasure" and "I have no objection to walking." I suspect it can be challenging for foreigners to know when to use the gerund and when to use the infinitive, since I have heard many cases where one is swapped for the other (such as "I didn't know to walk would take so long"). These sentences are comprehensible, but sound a little funny.
In Japanese, you nominalize a verb by using the plain present or past form plus a special noun, of which there are many. There are a few "neutral" nominalizers, such as no ("one"), koto ("thing"; could be abstract or concrete), and mono ("thing"; usually concrete). So Watashi wa yomu koto ga suki desu means "I like reading," while Kore wa mae kara hoshii to omotte ita no desu means "I've wanted one of these for a long time."
Then there are some nominalizers that add meaning to the verb. For example, hazu after a verb means that something ought to be true, or ought to have happened. Kare wa kinou kita hazu desu means "he was supposed to come yesterday." And tsumori means that you intend to do something: Douyoubi ni iku tsumori desu ("I plan to go on Saturday"; note that tsumori is used only for your own plans).