There are a handful of Japanese words that you automatically pick up when you watch a lot of Japanese anime with English subtitles on. One of those words (that you may already know) is nani. So what does nani mean in Japanese?
I’m going to go over the word’s meaning and how to use it in this next section, and then I’ll move on to a couple of other things such as the kanji it uses, how to write that kanji, alternative spellings of the word, and so on.
You should also see a video clip with the word’s pronunciation as well.
The Meaning Of Nani
The word nani means “what” in Japanese and it can be used by itself or in a sentence, just like we would use “what” in English.
A common use of it is whenever someone asks you something that you don’t understand or didn’t quite hear, and you would like some clarification.
- Mumble, mumble… mumble?
- Nani? (what?)
Here’s a little clip to show how this word is pronounced:
You can also double it to “nani nani” when something surprising or crazy has happened and you’re trying to find out what it is by asking your friends.
- Wow, oh my gosh that was so amazing!
- Eh? Nani, nani?! (Huh, what is it?!)
Something that you might be aware of is that the word nani has become a meme on the internet due to a famous scene in the classic anime Fist of the North Star.
In the first episode of the show, there is a fight scene where the main protagonist tells his enemy that “you are already dead” because of the special move that was just performed. The bag guy yells “nani” before then exploding!
It’s a little violent, but that’s part of the reason it became so loved on the web.
Now so far I have been using romaji to write the word, but it has a kanji that is used most of the time in written Japanese.
The kanji is 何 and this next part will go over its stroke order so that you can learn how to correctly write it.
How To Write The Kanji For Nani
You probably already know that all Japanese characters have a specific stroke order that you are supposed to use when writing it down, but just in case you didn’t know before, you do now!
There are a couple of reasons why learning how to write kanji is helpful, such as making it more memorable, and improving your handwriting so that others can read what you’ve written.
The diagram below shows the completed kanji on the far left, and then it greys out everything and fills in each stroke with black coloring so that you know the order of strokes.
Start your pen on the green dot and then follow the red arrow for each section.
| Image credit: M4RC0 |
Due to the nature of today’s world, it is much more likely that you will type Japanese characters on things like your computer and phone, so after writing this kanji down five to ten times, you can probably move on to other parts of your study.
Other Ways To See The Word Written
Even though this word is usually written in kanji, there will still be times when you see it written in the two scripts of Japanese: hiragana and katakana.
There could be lots of artistic reasons to do it this way, and I’d like to touch on just a few of them here.
One reason that you might see nani written as なに (hiragana) is when a child is speaking in a Japanese manga.
It’s common for manga creators to do this for young kids at or below the age of five, since kanji isn’t typically taught to them until they are in school.
It just helps bring that kiddish feeling to the character.
Another reason why it might use hiragana is because you can elongate one or both of the vowels and express the character’s emotion in their tone of voice.
To illustrate this, see how this kanji 何 can only be “nani” but the hiragana なに can be changed to any of the following:
- なぁに？ (naani?) = whaat?
- なにい！ (nanii!) = whattt!
On the other hand, we have the katakana version which is ナニ and looks very different from what we’ve seen so far. That right there is the key reason why you might see it used – to GRAB your attention!
It is pretty common for a character to be speaking in a manga with the normal hiragana and kanji characters that you would typically expect, and then for one word in the sentence to be written in katakana (which is used much less than the other two in Japanese) so that it really pops out.
If the character is super surprised at something and screams “WHAT!” then there is also a good chance it will be this katakana version.
Compound Words That Use 何
Something that you will quickly find out is that there are a lot of words that use the kanji 何 and it changes not only the way that this kanji is pronounced, but it can also brings a new meaning to it.
For example the word 何故 (naze) means “why” and the word 何処 (doko) means “where” in Japanese.
Then we’ve got the word 何時でも (itsudemo) which means “always” and there are many more examples that I could give, but I think you get the point.
If you see this kanji used in combination with others and you’re not sure of its correct reading, just copy and paste it into a great online dictionary like jisho.org.
One final thing that I wanted to touch on is that the kanji 何 has an alternative pronunciation which is nan for certain situations (instead of the normal nani).
Like in the expression below:
- 何時ですか？ (nan ji desu ka?)
- What time is it?
It’s beyond the scope of this lesson to go over all of them, and in all honesty it’s impractical to try to memorize them at one time.
But I wanted to let you know since misreading 何 is a common mistake to make for beginners.
Do You Have Any Questions?
Hopefully that explanation on nani was pretty straightforward and easy to understand.
But if it wasn’t, or if you just have anything that you would like to add to the conversation, you can do so by leaving a comment down below.
Or to learn even more common, everyday Japanese words check out my thoughts on this great beginner course on learning Japanese.