Japanese expression: (何となく) “nan to naku”

By | December 23, 2023

Lately I have been doing less articles about grammar and expressions and more on media reviews and other topics, but since I recently got a request from a colleague I thought I would give a treatment of the expression 何となく “nan to naku” (which can also be written in full hiragana as なんとなく).

First, let’s look at the parts of this expression:

何と (“nan to” or “nanto”) is a word that roughly means “what” or “how”, and has several usages, for example as a question word for something that is quoted like something thought or said:

  • 何と答えたらいいか分からない (nan to kotaetara ii ka wakaranai)
  • I don’t know how to answer (literally “I don’t know what to answer with”)

何と can also be used with the word 言う (meaning “say”, pronounced “yu”) in a adjectival phrase that is more about describing and less about actually saying anything:

  • 何という人? (nan to iu hito?)
  • What is that person called?

This can also be written as “nante iu hito” (this is more common) or even simply “nante hito” (more casual).

In a related meaning, 何と can also be used in the beginning of a phrase for added emphasis (similar to “nante”):

  • 何と奇麗な海! (nan to kirei na umi)
  • What a beautiful sea!

The other part of “nanto naku” is “naku”(なく)that is the adverbial form of “nai” (ない), the negative verb of existence for non-living things. Note that is not related to 泣く (“naku”, meaning “to cry”). Literally it can be thought of as “without”, though sometimes this adverbial form can act similar to the “te” form in the sense of “~doesn’t exist and…”

Anyway, putting these together we literally get something like “without what”, a phrase that isn’t very meaningful on the surface. So what does it actually mean? Next let’s look at longer version of a related phrase:

  • 何と言う理由もなく (nan to iu riyuu mo naku)

Here “nan to iu riyuu” boils down to simply “what reason”, and the pattern “mo” + negative verb can be used to express something doesn’t exist at all (ex: 誰もいない)

So the phrase “nan to iu riyuu mo naku” essentially means “without any reason”. I should note that this phrase itself isn’t very common, though it is grammatically correct.

Anyway, it turns out that “nan to naku” basically means the same thing as “nan to iu riyuu mo naku” (and might have even come from that expression, or something similar). It is used when something occurs without a clear reason. For example:

  • なぜか分からないけど、何となくそう感じただけ (naze ka wakaranai kedo, nan to naku sou kanjita dake)
  • I don’t know why, but I just somehow felt like that.

Notice I used “somehow” to translate “nan to naku”, and in many cases that word fits nicely. Human feelings can have logical reasons, but sometimes they don’t, and in those cases “nan to naku” is a good way to describe them.

Here’s another example:

  • 空を何となく見上げたら鳥が飛んでいた。 (sora wo nan to naku miagetara tori ga tonde ita.)
  • When I happened to look up into the sky, there was a bird flying.

This phrase can even be used by itself in casual conversations:

  • Person A: どうして行きたくないの? (doushite ikitaku nai no?)
    • Why don’t you want to go?
  • Person B: なんとなく (nan to naku)
    • I just don’t.

I should mention that “nan to ka”, while sounding similar, has a very different nuance. It’s more used with the feeling that you “manage” to do something or “barely” do it.

  • 大丈夫だよ。何とかなる。 (daijoubu da yo. nan to ka naru.)
  • It’s fine. Things are going to work out.

While conceptually this can be thought as “somehow” (=”Things will work out somehow”), saying “nan to naku naru” sounds really weird.

Finally, there are a few other expressions with the “~to naku” pattern with similar meaning. どことなく (doko to naku) replaces “nan” (“what”) with “doko” (“where”), and while technically it means “Without knowing where”, it can be used with nearly the same meaning. 

Similarly, いつとなく (itsu to naku) uses “when” instead, and literally means something like “without (knowing) when”, although in practice it generally has the nuance of “before you/he/she knows it” or “suddenly”. 

Do you have any Japanese expressions or words you are struggling with? Please feel free to ask let me know in the comments!

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