"What is it?"
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nanka means more like "something" or "i don't know what", like, 何かおかしいな… (like, "something, I don't know what, is strange"; often translated as "something's wrong" or even "it's too quiet" for a more idiomatic translation)
In Hunter x Hunter, "nanika" (written in kana) is also the name of alluka zoldyck's alter, the fae spirit with blacked-out eyes that asks and grants favors with often terrifying and unpredictable consequences. I believe it's the dominant fan theory that she's called that because her family doesn't know what she is.
I think これ is for something that's close to you (Imagine yourself holding something really weird, or just being close to it and saying 「これは何ですか？」)
それ is for something that is far from you, but close to whom you're talking to (as in: "what's that next to you?")
and あれ is something that's far from both of you or the default way of saying "what is it?" (the default part is just assumption tho)
correct me if I'm wrong, I'm just a beginner ^^
(Kore ) is used to point at something that is close to the speaker ,(sore) used to point at something that is far from the speaker but close to the listener, lastly (are) used to point at something that far from both the speaker and the listener. This is how I learned it.
は marks the overall topic; the known contextual information for the statement you are about to make.
There's nothing in this sentence to mark as a topic though. The known subject being described that would normally be marked with は has been omitted and we insert the vague "it" pronoun required for English to be grammatically correct. In Japanese the sentence is only the predicate 何ですか "What is (implied 'it')"
If you wanted to be more specific about what you are referring to you could specify a topic「これ、それ、あれ」は何ですか "What is [this/that/that over there]"
You are correct on both counts. "A-Re" means "that (over there) and they must've changed the question/answer as there is no mention of So-Re or A-Re now, but several mentions in the comments. I have read another comment that in some situations Ko/So/A-Re may be translated as "it" however you're best to stick with translating them as "this/that."
That has a similar meaning, but there's a slight nuance that can't be ignored.
「なんですか」 / 「何ですか」 / "nan desu ka?" - This means "what is it?" in a vague manner that can be used in many situations. If you see someone frowning after reading something, you can say this to figure out what's causing them distress. If you receive a strange call with someone asking "Did you get that thing I sent you?" you might say this out of confusion. If your brother tells you he got you something special for your birthday, "Oh, what is it?" naturally comes to mind. The topic can be physical, conceptual, or anything really.
「これはなんですか」 / 「これ・は・何ですか」 / "kore wa nan desu ka?" - This means "what is this?" Again, it's similar, but now you're speaking about this. Going back to an earlier example, if you see someone frown after they read something, it wouldn't make sense for you to ask "what's this?" If you're holding something and you want to ask what it is, specifying this with これは is perfectly fine and even helps the listener distinguish what you're speaking about. But if something is closer to the listener, you'd what you specify the topic as that (それ) rather than this (これ). Either way, you're specifying what you're asking about, and this is the more natural question when you're gesturing at something (pointing, nodding, holding, or looking at something, for instance).
So while both questions are basically asking "what is x?" they have different levels of specificity and generality. In some contexts, they're interchangeable, but many times they are not. You and the listener/reader need to know what you're asking about, so you'll have to decide which fits best: "What is it?" or "What is this?" As for the translation exercise, I think it should be incorrect, though I haven't checked the acceptable answers.
TL;DR: They are not the same thing. Meaning is close, but the translations are different.
How come "what is it?" Can be written as "nan desu ka?" Whereas "which is it?" Needs the "sore wa" in front of it "nan desu ka"?
These 2 questions always trip me up, as english wise the only difference is which instead of what, but the japanese sentence has an extra bit when "which" is used.
何ですか is just "what is"; but English requires a filler pronoun => "what is it" or "what is that". それは何ですか is litteraly "as for that, what is" => "what is that", but with an explicit topic put on "that" in the Japanese sentence.
None of them means "which is it"; that implies a choice between some elements already known. and the Japanese word for "which" is どれ
Sidenote: Japanese ha s a very cool system ko/so/a/do : words starting with ko- are related to things near the speaker (eg: これ = this (near me)), with so- are related to things near the listener (eg: それ = that (near you)), whith a- for things far from both (eg: あれ = that (above there)). And starting with do- for the question words (eg: どれ, the question word associagted to this/that => which)
For places: ここ (here (next me))、 そこ (there (next you))、 あそこ (there (above there))、 どこ (where). etc
どれ is "which one"
どこ is "Where"
The Duolingo question I believe Kilian655992 is referring to is actually 「それはどれですか」 translated to "Which one is it?" but is more literally "Which one is that one".
どれですか is still also an accepted answer for it though. Duo doesn't require the それは at the beginning other than in 'type what you hear' questions, though it isn't uncommon to translate それ to "it" to point to something known (as there is no real 'it' equivalent in Japanese).
As to why "What is it" is just 何ですか and "Which is it" is それはどれですか, they were both likely just added at different points in time for different versions of the course by different contributors. This specific question doesn't even use the kanji for "what" 何, indicating it was likely a remainder from the very first iteration of the course which didn't use kanji.
There is an alternate version of this question that uses kanji phrased as 「それは何ですか」more likely added by the same person who created the それはどれですか question: https://forum.duolingo.com/comment/22993698/%E3%81%9D%E3%82%8C%E3%81%AF%E4%BD%95%E3%81%A7%E3%81%99%E3%81%8B%EF%BC%9F
For short exchanges, は is sometimes dropped. In this case, it might be better to write it as それ、何ですか？¹ but Duo doesn't care about punctuation anyhow. Since the は is just boilerplate structure and それ is assumed to begin with, it's not surprising that it would be allowed. However, I wouldn't count on that for other exercises. Unless you're fine testing the waters and getting strikes, always include the particle when the topic needs to be identified.
¹ 何ですか == なんですか