(Culture) The Sound of Piping-hot Ramen

Flashing image of a neon ramen sign

Japanese employs onomatopoeia more artfully than any language I’ve encountered.

We have a number of words in English that phonetically resemble the thing they represent: sizzle, murmur, cuckoo. We’ve even inherited some from other languages. Our word barbarian derives from the ancient Greek impression of their uncivilized neighbors, the peoples who spoke like “ba-ba-bar-bar-ba-bar.”

I’m no linguist, but I suspect that’s true of all languages. The neuroscientist Vilyanur Ramachandran argued that human beings are natural synesthetes. Synesthesia is the association of sensory experience from one mode with an entirely different mode: hearing numbers or tasting color.

Ramachandran gave a simple experiment. He showed his audience two shapes, one like the rounded trace of an amoeba and one like a multi-pointed star. He would then ask which was a “kiki” and which a “buba.” Most people associated the amoeba-like shape with the word “buba” and the hard points of the star with “kiki,” which of course has hard consonants to match.

Japanese turns such small spoken sounds into tiny musings on life. The first I encountered was どきどき (doki-doki), which refers to a light thumping or pitter-patter sound. One of Orine’s friends, when talking about starting a new job, turned to me and said “doki-doki.” It was a reference the palpitations of her heart. In common usage, doki-doki doesn’t refer to a sound at all but to an associated feeling: nervousness or anxiety.

On another occasion, Orine ran her fingers over a pillow in a home goods store and said ふわふわ (fuwa-fuwa), which means a fluffy kind of soft — versus, say, pillow foam, which is not hard but which may be coarse to the touch. I asked how many words like that there were — two syllables repeated. After some thought, she wrote out a list of 40. There may be more.

You have to remember, the words we associate with particular sounds are relative. Bees buzz in English, but in German they “sum” and in Korean they “boong.” In English, dogs bark. In Russian, they “gav.” In Japanese, they “wan.” A puppy or small dog (or any dog the speaker thinks is cute, regardless of size) is “wan-chan.”

さらさら (sara-sara), then, is a murmuring or gentle rustling and may also refer to textures reminiscent of that. ボキボキ (boki-boki) is a crackling or crunching sound, such as when one pops one’s knuckles. すべすべ (sube-sube, pronounced subay-subay) means velvety or smooth and may refer to, for example, a young woman’s freshly moisturized skin.

Many of these words, like doki-doki, have extended meanings based on these physical sounds and sensations. くるくる (kuru-kuru) refers to whirling, spinning, revolving, or coiling around, but in casual speech, when an adult says kuru-kuru, they mean that they are working tirelessly, perhaps getting nowhere, or that the circumstances of their life keep changing.

あつあつ (atsu-atsu) is like the sound you make when you sip something piping hot, and that’s exactly what it means — piping hot, such as how ramen should be served, but it can also mean passionately in love, almost unreasonably so. ピカピカ (pika-pika) is a twinkling or sparkling. Hence the name of everyone’s favorite Pokemon, Pikachu.

ギリギリ (giri-giri) is a grinding sound, like metal on metal — car brakes, for example, as the vehicle grinds to a halt. Poetically, it also means “at the last moment” or “just barely,” such as showing up to one’s wedding right before the bell or barely passing a test.

The Japanese language, then, is rich with the feelings of sounds and textures. My favorite is のびのび (nobi-nobi), because it applies to me. It refers to a kind of stretching out, a carefree ease, but also to the repeated slipping of a schedule, a pushing-out of responsibilities, procrastination.

Speaking of, I best get back to work…