SpecGram Vol CLXXXIV, No 4 Contents Letters to the Editor

Speaking in Tongues

A Letter from Charismatic Editor Eakd Hirmkak

Now, I’ve been working away in the language sciences for over 20 years, but was amazed the other day when I was flicking through the classified advertisements in my local newspaper to read that the term linguist actually derives from the Latin lingua meaning both “language” and “tongue”. Apparently, this is also reflected even in English expressions like “your native tongue”, “speaking in tongues”, “tongue-tied” and “has the cat got your tongue”. Well I never. Anyway, all this insight, quite rightly, got me thinking all about tongues, what they are and what we do with them.

Alain Deschamps, 1994, De l’ecrit à l’oral et de l’oral à l’ecrit: Phonétique et orthographie de l’anglais, Editions Ophrys.

Chiasmus of the Month
June 2019

A tongue is a pretty versatile beast, it turns out. For one thing, it’s one of only two muscles in the human bodyalong with the brainwhich is attached to the body only at one end. Secondly, like a sword (and even a scimitar) it has a blade and a tip, and like plants and mountains, it has a root. It’s strange to think that the tongue is actually a mixture of a sword and a mountain. But the more one thinks about it, the more obvious it seems: I guess that’s why we can say things like “words can move mountains” and “his sharp words cut deep into my soul”.

The internet’s an amazing thing. I soon found myself tapping away in my new-found tongue-related fanaticism. On top­tongue­tips­for­busy­linguists.org I learnt that some people can “curl their tongue” but that this doesn’t correlate with any particular facility in language production such as comprehension of multiply embedded relative clauses. In a not entirely dissimilar way, it’s also possible to “roll your tongue”, a sound often associated with the trilled Spanish /r/ as in lenguas arriba (“tongues up”). It’s no surprise to learn that 84% of tongue rollers live and work in a Spanish-speaking country at least once in their lives. As is well known, tongues are also involved in discriminating 7 of the 9 recognised “tastes”. Crucially, as well, humans can put their tongue in their cheek (but only one at a time) if they’re being ironic.

So, that was my journey into tongues, inspired by the etymology of my own profession: linguist. Well played to the Latins: they certainly knew a thing or two, to imbue with such rich meaning their word for someone who studies languages. My next questand perhaps yours toois to look into the etymology of the ostensibly related term linguistics. Who knows what secrets that will turn up?

Tongue you later!

Letters to the Editor
SpecGram Vol CLXXXIV, No 4 Contents