The Quick ‘Why’ Guide: どうしてvs なぜ vs なんで

Japanese is so vocabulary rich that knowing when to use similar words and phrases can be a bit of a nightmare for language learners. どうして, なぜ and なんで can all be translated as ‘why’ in English but it is the level of formailty which largely differentiates the three words.

なぜ

なぜ orginated from the older term なにゆえ. It is the most formal of the three and is the word most often used in the written language rather than in speech.

なぜ日本語を勉強していますか?     naze nihongo wo benkyou shiteimasuka?

Why are you studying Japanese?

なぜ昨日のパーティーに来なかったの? naze pa-ti- ni konakatta no?

Why didn’t you come to the party yesterday?

どうして

In a lot of cases, どうして can be used interchangeably with なぜ, but is considered to feel less formal. The word is a contraction of an older term どのようにして, and therefore can sometimes be used to mean ‘how’ rather than why’ in English.

どうして知っているの? doushite shitteiru no?

How did you know?

どうして昨日そんなに早く帰ってしまったの? doushite kinou sonna ni hayaku kaette shimatta no?

Why did you go home so early yesterday?

なんで

なんで is the most informal of the three terms. As you can imagine, this word tends to be used more by young people than other age groups.

なんで私が? nande watashi ga?

Why me?

なんでそんな所に行ったの? nande sonna tokoro ni itta no?

Why did you go to that place?

どうして is probably the word you’ll hear used the most and is therefore your safest bet for everyday use, but make sure to choose wisely depending on what setting you are in.

Japanese Onomatopoeia オノマトペ/擬態語/ 擬声語

If you’ve been exposed to Japanese for even the shortest period of time, you’ll have noticed that onomatopoeia (known as オノマトペ or 擬態語/ぎたいご or 擬声語/ぎせいご in Japanese) is very frequently used. Japanese in incredibly rich in vocabulary when it comes to onomatopoeia, and is used in a much broader sense than in English, and so it can pose a bit of a challenge for learners. Fortunately onotmatopoeia is the easiest type of vocabulary to remember if you bear the following in mind:

Types of onomatopoeia

Onomatopoeia can be broadly split into 5 categories:

1. those that imitate a voice of some kind, e.g.

わんわん = a dog’s bark

おぎゃ= a baby’s cry

2. those that imitate a sound, e.g. 

どんどん = drumming or pounding sound

がちゃん = slamming or clanging sound

3. those that indicate a state or condition, e.g. 

ぐちゃぐちゃ= soggy

つるつる= smooth

  1. those that describe how an action is being performed

うろうろ = aimless, wandering

のろのろ = slow, sluggish

  1. those that indicate feelings or emotions

イライラする = to be irritated

びっくりする = to be surprised

Context is key to memorising them

Having example sentences, or remembering what kinds of situations these type of words are used in are essential for being able to memorise onomatopoeia and use them naturally in conversation. When I come across a new onomatopoeia I look it up in a dictionary or ask a friend to confirm the meaning, and then make a note of it in my vocabulary notebook. When I write it down in my notebook, I normally write it down as a phrase rather than the word on its own depending on what type of onomatopoeia it is.

This is because are very frequently used with certain verbs so it is best to memorise them together with the said verb. Others are formed into verbs by adding する, so remembering the onomatopoeia as a verb means you will know the meaning of it even when it appears without する.

わんわん吠(ほ)える = to bark

にこにこ笑( わら)う = to smile

Referring to a decent Japanese-English dictionary is fine for giving an idea of a rough meaning, although you may find that there is not a direct English translation. I also recommend the onomatopoeia dictionary on the Nihongo Resources website for getting the general meaning of onomatopoeia in English.

However if you are an intermediate learner, then I fully recommend going straight to a Japanese resource Sura Sura, which is a online Japanese onomatopoeia dictionary. It may not have every word you are looking for, but for the onomatopoeia it does have on the site there is a simple explanation in Japanese, accompanied by a photo which helps illuminate the meaning. Each onomatopoeia also has example sentences and notes on things like the etymology of the word and how it differs to others with a simiar meaning. Best of all, each page has a link to Twitter showing tweets from native speakers using the word you are looking up.

I also recommend the National Institute for Japanese Language and Lingustics website, in particular the マンガを読もう section which has some extremely helpful comic illustrations giving you an idea of what situations each word is used in.

The above two websites show just how useful it is to have visual context for learning how onomatopoeia is actually used. Pictures, manga and TV therefore are especially good places to these words in context, so sometimes I will either draw a picture (despite being terrible at drawing) or write down in my notebook where I have taken my example sentences from.

Have you got a handy way of remembering onomatopoeia? Let me know in the comments.

PS. Think you’ve got onomatopoeia down? Check out this video and see if you can spot them all!