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I've read and been told divergent and confusing information regarding these three question ending styles. Note that I'm not asking about their neutral use in academic and other written contexts, just about the nuances and proper use when speaking.

Also, I'm not asking about the 나요 or (는/ㄴ)가요 forms either.

Thanks for any help.

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Let's look at the dictionary definitions first.

-냐

(‘이다’의 어간, 용언의 어간 또는 어미 ‘-으시-’, ‘-었-’, ‘-겠-’ 뒤에 붙어) 

해라할 자리에 쓰여, 물음을 나타내는 종결 어미.

-나

(주로 동사 어간이나 어미 ‘-으시-’, ‘-었-’, ‘-겠-’ 뒤에 붙어)

  1. 하게할 자리에 쓰여, 물음을 나타내는 종결 어미.

    • 자네 언제 떠나나?
  2. 자기 스스로에게 묻는 물음이나 추측을 나타내는 종결 어미.

    • 얼굴이 붉어서 난 자네가 술을 마셨나 했어.

-는가

(‘있다’, ‘없다’, ‘계시다’의 어간, 동사 어간 또는 어미 ‘-으시-’, ‘-었-’, ‘-겠-’ 뒤에 붙어)

  1. 하게할 자리에 쓰여, 현재의 사실에 대한 물음을 나타내는 종결 어미.

    • 시간 좀 있는가?
  2. 자기 스스로에게 묻는 물음이나 추측을 나타내는 종결 어미.

    • 과연 이 땅에도 봄은 오는가?

The biggest difference is in speech level. -냐 is 해라체, which is a impolite(talking down, 낮춤) speech level. Thing to note is that -냐 is a traditionally formal speech level, although most modern usages aren't. It goes with -아/어라, -자, -단다, etc. -느냐 and -으냐 is an old fashioned way of saying -냐.

-나 and -는가 are both 하게체, which is a strictly formal and moderately impolite(예사 낮춤) speech level. It's somewhat uncommon these days. They go together with -게, -세, -네. The difference between the two is: 나 is used in conjuction with tense endings, like 했었나 and 했겠나. -는가 is strictly present tense.

The second and more common usage of -나 and -는가 are the same: they're used to indicate self-questions and assumptions, and pretty much interchangable. This usage is only used in coda when you're talking to yourself. Otherwise they're used in the middle of a sentence, making auxillary verbs, used before verbs like 하다, 모르다, 궁금하다, etc.

Edit: There's also dialectal usages, quite different from standard usages above.

-나 is used as a yes/no question ending in 해라체 level in the southeastern reigon(경상). In contrast, -노 is used as a question ending asking for explanations. For example:

어디 가노? Where are you going?
- 슈퍼 갑니더. I'm going to the supermarket.

어디 가나? Are you going somewhere?
- 예/아니오 Yes / No

This is a remnant of -오/-아 in Middle Korean, and a lost feature in Standard Korean.

  • Thanks a lot. So, I guess when I heard that women asking the bus driver a question yesterday it was 하게체? Is the 네 ending that you hear young people use nearly every other sentence in that same grouping, or something different? I'm living in Daegu, by the way, and I've been told repeatedly that 나 is a dialect..what do you think about that...my guess is that what they are calling a dialect is, in fact, a remnant or holdout usage of the older style that people in Seoul have dropped. – B. Alvn Dec 23 '16 at 12:33
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    @B.Alvn 1. If the woman was of older age, then probably yes. 2. That 네 ending you mention is not considered 하게체, it's an exclamation ending of 해체 or talking to yourself(which is not part of any speech level). (해할 자리나 혼잣말에 쓰여, 지금 깨달은 일을 서술하는 데 쓰이는 종결 어미. 흔히 감탄의 뜻이 드러난다.) 3. Updated my post. I myself is a Gyeongsang dialect speaker, by the way. – MujjinGun Dec 23 '16 at 12:50
  • 1. Designation of -냐 as 'impolite' and -나 as 'moderately polite' can be misleading. For example -냐 among friends implies perfect equality. If you then switch to -나, this would confer a superior status on yourself vis-a-vis the addressee. (You might use -나 to the grown child of your friend.) I am not contesting the designation, only pointing out that you cannot draw mechanical conclusions from them. 2. -으냐 and -느냐 to me sound very different from -냐. You can say 넌 그걸 믿냐? to a friend, but not 믿느냐? unless you are trying to sound funny. 3. -니 is always roughly equivalent to -냐. – Catomic Dec 24 '16 at 8:08
  • @Catomic 1. 낮춤 in itself contains equality, so that's not misleading. 하게체 is considered '예사 낮춤', so that would translate to 'moderately impolite'. I'll update my answer accordingly. 2. Yes, 으냐 and 느냐 is an old-fashioned way of saying 냐. 3. 니 is a friendly way of saying 냐.( 해라할 자리에 쓰여, 물음의 뜻을 나타내는종결 어미. ‘-냐’에 비하여 좀 더 친밀하고 부드럽게 이르는느낌을 준다.) – MujjinGun Dec 24 '16 at 9:18
  • i appreciate all the responses so far. one thing i find odd is that normally the endings classified as 하게체 don't take 요 (right?) yet both 나 and ㄴ/는가 do...why is that? – B. Alvn Dec 24 '16 at 14:14
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On -나, we need to distinguish at least two different types of situation.

In type I, it is used between two equals.

A: 가 보았나?
B: 난 아직 못 가 보았네. A군, 자네는 가 보았나?

You see this type of use in the movies set against the sixties (perhaps) or earlier. It gives you the sense that both men are on terms of equality and mutual respect. (This does not contradict the other answer's characterization of -나 as 'moderately impolite.' There, 'polite' or 'impolite' is a grammatical term. I am using 'respect' in its ordinary sense.) Women are rarely seen talking this way even in the movies.

In type II, it is one way only.

Father-in-law (professor): 가 보았나?
Son-in-law (graduate student): 아니요. 아버님은 (교수님은) 가 보셨습니까?

This kind of talk is still common. Also women use it too, for example, a mother-in-law to her son-in-law (though not to a daughter-in-law).

Please note that I am not saying that -나 has two different senses or two different levels of 'impoliteness.' There is the same level of 'moderation of impoliteness,' as it were. The difference lies in the direction (bi- or unilateral).

If a young man today addressed a same-age friend in -나, then the addressee would be rather confused because neither type I nor II applies readily. (They are not in a movie, and the speaker is not an elder.)

-냐 and -니 imply total familiarity (again, not a grammatical term). You will use it to your childhood friends or a child or animal.

Notice that children who speak 'impolite' speech to their parents or grandparents will still stay clear of -냐 and -니 in addressing them.

-느냐 often (though not always) implies not only total familiarity but also assertion of authority or even contempt. In the movies, domestic servants, subordinates in the military, and captured criminals will be addressed this way.

-는가 as used in a question would seem to me equivalent to -나 in terms of respect. That is to say, whenever you could use -나, whether in type I or II, you could also use -는가, and vice versa. In fact, I cannot distinguish between these two in any respect:

(1) 자네 조간신문을 보나?
(2) 자네 조간신문을 보는가?

In some other context, -는가 may have a poetic tone not shared by -나. (For instance,'이 땅에도 봄은 오는가' quoted in the other answer.)

  • I've read that 나 and ㄴ/는가 are identitical in nuance and formality level with the major difference being 나 is used more often with active (processive) verbs and ㄴ/는가 more often with descriptive (stative) verbs...does this sound somewhat accurate? I've also seen at least two or three authors call (으/느)냐 a "book" style (e.g. comparable to the declarative (ㄴ/는)다 ending)...also sound correct? – B. Alvn Dec 24 '16 at 14:30
  • @B.Alvn First question, probably yes if what you mean is e.g. 죽나 사나 보자 vs. 긴가 짧은가 보자, where to die or to live is thought to be 'active' while to be long or short is 'stative' (I have not seen these terms in this context before). But one would have to run through many examples to confirm a generalization of this sort. Consider 맞나 틀리나 보자, where to be right or wrong seems 'stative' but has no 'n' sound. Second question, probably yes. Basically -느냐 is dated so you find it in books and period movies, but not often in ordinary speech anymore. – Catomic Dec 24 '16 at 15:27

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