Word Connections: Tongue & Teeth

In this episode of Word Connections, we examine a web of words associated with “tongue” and “teeth”. Both of these words have been part of the English language for a very long time, dating back to Old English (also called Anglo-Saxon). Yet we also have many other words in English that refer to the tongue and teeth, either directly or indirectly, and many of these words can be traced back to other languages.

The word “tongue” comes to us from the Old English tunge, of Germanic origin. In Danish and Norwegian, the word for “tongue” is still tunge. The modern Dutch word is tong, quite similar to the modern English. The modern German word is Zunge, differing only slightly from the Old English word. In Old English, the word tunge was pronounced “TOON-geh”. Over time the second syllable was abbreviated and eventually dropped. Meanwhile the “n” sound was converted to an “ng” sound. And then the vowel sounded changed during the Great Vowel Shift (between the years 1350 and 1600). Before English spelling was standardized, the word was spelled in a great variety of ways, finally becoming frozen with the spelling of “tongue”.

The word “tongue” appears in many English expressions. If you are “tongue-tied”, then you are having trouble coming up with words to say. If you “hold your tongue”, then you intentionally refrain from speaking. The association between the tongue and speaking is so strong that we even use the word “tongue” to mean “language”. For example, you might say that English is your “mother tongue”. Or you might encounter the expression “He speaks several tongues.” At one time this use of “tongue” to mean “language” was quite common. It is becoming increasingly rare in English, but is still quite frequent in many other languages.

The Latin word for tongue is lingua. In the Romance languages — the languages directly descended from Latin — the corresponding word is often little changed. The modern Italian word is still lingua, while the Portuguese word is língua — the same spelling except for an added accent mark. The Spanish word for tongue is lengua — just one letter different from the Latin. The French word for tongue is langue, a bit different, but still fairly similar.

Many centuries ago, when Old French was still spoken in France, the word langue could mean either “tongue” or “language”. You could avoid this ambiguity by using the very similar word langage — which specifically meant “language”. After the Norman Invasion of 1066, Old French and Old English came into direct contact in England, with the ruling class speaking a version of Old French, and the lower classes speaking Old English. After several centuries, a hybrid language emerged — Middle English — based on a core of Old English, but incorporating thousands of Old French words. One of those words was langage, which has become the modern English word “language”. And thus the word “language” can be traced back to the Latin word for “tongue”.

In modern French, the word langue still means either “tongue” or “language”, while the word langage unambiguously means “language”. A similar situation exists in Italian, where the words lingua and linguaggio both translate to “language”, but lingua can also mean “tongue”. In Spanish there are not two but three common words that all translate to “language” — idioma, lengua, and lenguaje — and one of them (lengua) also means tongue.

The Spanish word lenguaje is obviously derived from lengua, but the word idioma has a different history. It came to Spanish from the Latin idiōma, which came from the Greek idíōma, which in turn came from the Greek word ídios, which meant “one’s own”. The English word “idiom”, which has the same origin, once meant “one’s own manner of speaking”. This led to the use of the word to mean a local dialect, as in “the idiom spoken in this region”. In Spanish, the meaning of the word idioma has broadened to simply mean “language”. In English the term has evolved along a different path. Today the most common meaning of “idiom” is “a linguistic expression whose meaning does not follow from the meanings of the individual words”. An example of an idiom is “I’m afraid that Sam is about to kick the bucket”. If you should use this expression, then your concern has nothing to do with an actual bucket, or with a risk that Sam might strike something with his foot. Other English words that trace back to the Greek ídios still retain the original meaning of “one’s own”, such as the word “idiosyncratic”.

There are English words other than “language” that have a more direct connection to the Latin word lingua, bypassing the Old French connection. The word “lingual” means “pertaining to the tongue”, although it can also mean “pertaining to language”. So if you say “Jane’s lingual dexterity is amazing”, you could be referring to her incredible ability to speak extemporaneously, or you could be suggesting that she can twist her tongue into fantastic shapes. A “linguist” is an expert in the details of languages (not a doctor who treats tongues), and “linguistics” is the study of the history and structure of languages. The word “bilingual” literally means “having two tongues”, but in this case “tongue” is a synonym for “language”.

For certain other English words, the connection to lingua may be less obvious. The word “lingo” means “jargon”, a specialized set of terms for a particular occupation or purpose. You can think of it as a special language for a limited group of people. And you have probably eaten “linguine” in a restaurant, perhaps even at home. The word, which came to us from Italian, literally means tongue-shaped pasta.

The prefix “multi-” means “many”, and therefore the English word “multilingual” means “knowing or using many languages”. For example, you could say that a high percentage of the residents of Europe are multilingual. But the word “multilingual” is an adjective, and sometimes we might need a noun instead. What should we call someone who speaks several languages? We don’t call that a person a “multilinguist” — instead we call that person a “polyglot”. So now we have jumped from Latin to Greek. The Greek prefix “poly-” means “many” — the same meaning as the Latin “multi-”. And the “glot” in “polyglot” comes from the Greek word glôtta, which means “tongue”. Therefore a “polyglot” is a person who knows many languages. In other words, a polyglot is a multilingual person.

In English there are several other words that also derived from the Greek word for “tongue”. For example, we have the word “glottis”, which is the opening into the windpipe at the back of the throat. This opening is behind the tongue, between the vocal cords — perhaps not quite the right place to call it a “glottis”, but close enough. A bit more accurately, when we use the back of the tongue to block the flow of air during speech, linguists call that a “glottal stop”. If you say “I am” without a glottal stop between the words, then it sounds like “I yam”. But if you clearly separate the spoken words, then you have inserted a glottal stop between them.

The Greek word glôssa is a variant of glôtta (with the same meaning), and from it we get the English word “glossary”. The derivation took place in several steps. First, the word glôssa acquired a second meaning: “an obsolete or foreign word that needs to be explained”. Then the word was taken into Latin as glōssa. From this came the Latin word glōssārium, which means “glossary”. When the word entered English, we changed the ending of the word, but kept the Latin meaning.

Besides the tongue, the other obvious structure inside the mouth is our set of teeth. In the English language, we have several expressions that refer to the teeth. If someone has “a sweet tooth”, then that person enjoys sugary foods. If someone “shows his teeth”, then the person is threatening to become aggressive. If that person is also “armed to the teeth”, then you should probably take the threat seriously. If someone is “long in the tooth”, then that person is rather old. And if that person accomplishes something “by the skin of his teeth”, then he was just barely able to accomplish it.

The word “teeth” is ancient, from the Old English word tēth. The bar over the “e” indicates that the vowel is “long”. In Old English, each of the six vowel sounds could be “short” or “long”. A long vowel had exactly the same sound as the corresponding short vowel — the only difference was in the duration of the sound. And yet, in many cases, this was enough to distinguish between two completely different words. Modern English no longer includes short vowels and long vowels, although we sometimes use the terminology of “long vowel” and “short vowel” when referring to two different vowel sounds that are represented by the same letter. Thus some people will call the vowel sound in “bat” a “short A” and the vowel sound in “bait” a “long A” — but from the standpoint of a linguist this is completely wrong, because these are two distinct vowel sounds, not a single sound held for two different durations.

Many modern languages — including both Dutch and German — still distinguish between long and short vowels. If you are an English speaker and you want to learn Dutch, then you have to learn how to hold the long vowels for a longer period of time than the short vowels. In written Dutch, a doubled vowel letter indicates that the vowel is long. Thus we see Dutch words such as een, gaan, and gewoon. But the biggest surprise for English speakers is that most of the doubled vowels in the spelling of English words are there for the same reason — they are remnants of an ancient time when we used to have genuine long and short vowels in English. Thus the Old English word tēth could also be written “teeth”, which is still how we spell the word today. And the Old English word tōth, which also contained a long vowel, could be written “tooth”, which is still how we spell the word today. However, for both “tooth” and “teeth”, we pronounce the vowels differently now than in Old English.

There is a second way in which the word “teeth” is a holdover from ancient times. In modern English, for more than 99% of our nouns, we make the plural by adding an “s” to the end of the word. (However, we pronounce the “s” ending in three different ways, depending upon the context.) But in Old English, this was not how plurals were formed. Old English was a Germanic language, and plurals were formed in a Germanic manner. In some cases an internal vowel changed to distinguish the singular and the plural — as in “goose” and “geese”. In other cases the “-en” suffix was added to distinguish the plural from the singular, as in “ox” and “oxen”. After the Norman Conquest of 1066, the French style of making plurals took root in the English language. We began to make plurals by putting an “s” at the ends of our nouns. Soon this became the pattern for nearly every noun in the English language. Only a tiny handful of Old English words resisted the change — and so today we still have a few ancient plural words such as “teeth”, “feet”, “children”, and “men”.

The Latin word for “tooth” is dentis, from which came the French dent, the Italian and Portuguese dente, and the Spanish diente. In English, the word “dental” means “pertaining to the teeth”, as in “dental hygiene” or “dental floss”. A “dentist” is a doctor who treats your teeth (even though a “linguist” is not a doctor who treats your tongue). A “trident” is a large 3-pronged spear, which we associate with the god Poseidon or Neptune. The word literally means that the spear has three teeth. When pasta is only lightly cooked, we call it “al dente” — from the Italian — implying that the pasta is firm to the tooth. Even our word “dandelion” is related to teeth. The word came into English from the French dent de lion, which means “lion’s tooth” — named for the toothed leaves of the plant. And botanists describe a toothed leaf as being “dentate”.

The ancient Greek word for “tooth” is odóntos, which is not too different from the Latin. The Greek word for “straight” is orthós. Therefore a doctor who straightens teeth is an “orthodontist”. The Greek prefix “endo-” means “within”. Therefore an “endodontist” is a doctor who treats the pulp within the teeth — usually by drilling it all out. And the prefix “peri-” means “around”. Therefore a “periodontist” is a doctor who treats the supporting tissue around the teeth — which we typically call the “gums”.

The word “bite”, which comes to us from the Old English bītan, is strongly associated with teeth. The various Germanic and Scandinavian languages all use similar words for the verb “bite” — in fact, the Norwegian word is bite. The Latin verb for “bite” is mordēre, and the Romance languages still use similar words, such mordre in French and morder in Spanish. In English we have the adjective “mordant”, which comes from Old French. We use the word to mean “biting, cutting, or sarcastic”, as in “a mordant commentary” or “a mordant wit”. As a noun, the word “mordant” can refer to an acid that is applied to a metal surface for the purpose of etching it. (The word signifies that the acid “bites” into the metal.) We also use the word “mordant” to refer to any metallic compound that we add to fabric dyes to make them more colorfast.

As a noun, the word “bite” has two distinct meanings. The first meaning is reflected in the sentence “He suffered from a serious dog bite.” Or “She has an itchy mosquito bite on her neck.” The second meaning is a small quantity of food, as in “I’ll have just a bite of that yummy-looking dessert.” Or “I’ve hardly had a bite to eat all day.” We can also use the synonym “morsel” to refer to a tiny quantity of food. This word came to use directly from the Old French, where mors meant “a bite”, and morsel meant “a little bite”. Ultimately, the word traces back to the same Latin verb mordēre.

The English word “bit”, as in “He got himself into a bit of trouble”, is also derived from “bite”. The word originally meant a small piece that was bitten off, but can now refer to any small piece, whether bitten off or not. We also use the word “bit” to refer to the part of a horse’s bridle that we place into the horse’s mouth. Another modern meaning of “bit” is the part of a drill that cuts a hole into wood or other material — because this is the part that bites into the material. And of course, we also use the word “bit” as a verb, the past tense of “bite”, as in “He bit the hand that fed him, and that cost him his job!”

There are many other English words that are also connected to the mouth, but we don’t want to bite off more than we can chew right now — so we’ll conclude here. We have explored quite a range of English words that are directly tied to the tongue or teeth, and we have examined the related words in the related languages of Western Europe. You have undoubtedly found plenty here to sink your teeth into, and if so, then perhaps you will see your native tongue in a new light!

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