The Versatile Tongue

Illustration by Will Hobbs

Have you thought about the tongue? I’m serious, have you ever taken a moment to ponder the versatility of that thing in your mouth? I hadn’t. Which is why when I began poking around, looking for something to write about and saw tongue I thought, well that’s interesting.

All the symbolism has been right there all along. I just hadn’t thought it through. For instance, how often do you get annoyed, displeased, or pouty about something or someone and stick your tongue out? A childish display perhaps, but one that persists with most of us well into our adult years. If it didn’t, why on earth would so many of my Facebook friends respond to my smart aleck comments with :P? The most basic and earliest learned symbolic meaning for the tongue in Western culture would certainly be the tongue’s power to express displeasure or to tease.

Speaking of teasing, let’s look at what could perhaps be considered the adolescent evolution of the tongue. In many instances of tribal art the tongue symbolizes fertility or is used as a substitute image for the phallus. However, we don’t really need to take a look at primitive art to know that the tongue can be associated with fertility, do we? The act of licking one’s lips, running your tongue along your upper lip, and perhaps even making a licking gesture are all considered sexual signals in our culture. I guess what I’m saying is that in some respects, perhaps we haven’t become that much more “evolved” than our tribal brothers, eh?

Now teasing, and um, teasing aside, the tongue has a lot more symbolism tied to it than just that. I was surprised to learn that the tongue is sometimes associated with protection. Ancient Chinese tombs would occasionally feature tongues on them to frighten away evil spirits, and in the depictions of the Egyptian deity Bes the protruding tongue is used as a defensive gesture to symbolize protection.

In an odd turn the cheeky, seductive, and protective tongue is also an aggressive symbol. Images of Kali’s protruding tongue can be seen to symbolize her consuming power. The extended tongue is depicted in Maori art as an aggressive symbol, and in fact, as seen on Anthony Bourdain’s show “No Reservations”, among dozens of other shows and movies that have featured this, when visitors to New Zealand present themselves to the Maori a Maori warrior approaches them with bulging eyes and their tongue sticking out. This is done in an aggressive manner that basically says, if you don’t come in peace, I kick your ass. We also tend to view fire as an aggressive thing, and often tongues of flame will appear. Incidentally, those tongues of flame symbolize the Holy Spirit in early Christian art work.

As you can see, that slab in your mouth has a lot of symbolic baggage associated with it. Perhaps you’ll be more aware of when you see a tongue being used symbolically, or when you yourself use it. Also, can you do that thing when you curl your tongue into a tube when you stick it out? I guess not every one can, so it’s fun to check. I totally can.