If there’s one organ of perception that we are almost criminally indifferent towards, it has to be the tongue.

‘Tongue? An organ?’ would be our usual response after reading the above sentence. But this flexible muscular organ plays roles way beyond what we consciously credit it for.

As an organ, it has an almost ironic presence. We can barely see it with our eyes (without making a fool out of ourselves), yet we use it almost at all times in the state of wakefulness. It is the only internal organ that can claim to have seen a little bit of the outside world. In a way, it’s safe to assume that the tongue is light sensitive, for whenever we open our mouth, it knows there is work to be done.

The irony in its character is captured best by the Sanskrit language that names the tongue as ‘Rasna‘ (Ras- Na), which means ‘the one with no taste‘. While it acts as the grand arena of all the epicurean delights, the tongue, indeed, has no taste of its own!

Remember the map of the tongue from junior school, when we were led to believe that the tongue has different zones of sensitivity for different flavours? That myth about the demarcation of taste buds – sweet at the tip of the tongue, bitter at the far end etc. – didn’t need any busting, for whenever we’ve tried to gulp a bitter medicine in an attempt to bypass these sensory territories, we’ve always met with a pungent failure.

It is interesting to see how we get introduced to the five flavours – salty, sour, bitter, sweet, and umami. A toddler knows only one taste, one that none of us grown-ups remembers – that of mother’s milk. But beyond the adventures in mother-dairy, the first solid foods given to babies are often starches that feel sweet after mastication, and fruits that are naturally laden with sweetness. Sugary are the lives of kids. Most baby syrups taste like sherbets. Even in illness, there’s an element of sweetness.

Kids remain aliens to the range of flavours for much of their early life. It takes a naughty uncle to inveigle a child into tasting a citrus lemon or to introduce it to the bitter world of dark chocolate. And it’s around that moment that the seeds of caution and distrust are sown in an otherwise artless little human.

With age, the palate builds a tolerance to more deviant flavours. We begin to appreciate chaats with raw mango, sweet and sour candies (Hajmola anyone?), some spice in our curries, and of course, more sugar in our desserts. At some point in a young boy’s life, he prides in his ability to eat spicier food than everyone else on the dining table, as if tolerance to spice confers him with unimpeachable manhood. And as we enter adolescence with our raging hormones, we imagine the tongue to be a doorway to an altogether different sensory pleasure. How intensely do we crave for the taste of a lover’s tasteless ‘rasna‘?

More than just being a red carpet for flavours in the museum of teeth, the tongue serves the vital function of enabling speech. Think of speaking without using your tongue for a moment and you’ll realise its significance. But even without speech, the tongue manages to communicate several of our primal expressions.

Remember how we hold the tongue between our teeth to add endearment to our apology? How we lick our lips to express the greed in our hunger?  Or the blubbery expulsion of air with our outstretched tongue in a proud exhibition – that childish gesture that communicated our fleeting animosity.
The tongue’s quick slip and slide in and out of the mouth intended to irk an opponent, or that ‘tchu-tchu’ sound that we make with a firm belief that it attracts a forlorn puppy; or that high decibel whistle that summons the friend who lives on the third floor, into the balcony – Is any of this conceivable without the athleticism of our tongue?

But despite this astounding dexterity, nothing exemplifies the capacity of folly on part of our species more than the act of biting into our own tongue while eating. With the amount of daily practice we get, why we still mis-bite a morsel is a mystery as old as humankind itself.

The tongue has an undeniable personality. Think of the caution it displays when tasting something new, the openness and love with which it welcomes a familiar flavour, the helpless hissing when it entertains a spicy pickle; or the way it licks clean the lips after a pleasing flavour makes all the taste buds blossom.

And since we subconsciously attribute a personality to the tongue, it comes little as a surprise that it takes the blame on part of the failure of all its accomplices in normal bodily functioning. The collective failure of the vocal apparatus in repeatedly saying ‘she sells seashells on the seashore’ is called a ‘tongue twister’, our inability to withhold a secret is blamed as a ‘slip of the tongue’, and ‘mind your tongue’ is what they say when our words teeter at the brink of propriety.

However, despite all the blaming, it must be stated for the record, that the tongue has nothing to do with a bad taste in music!

And speaking of personality, did you know that every tongue has its unique tongue-print? Imagine a world where a tongue print is used as a biometric authenticaton! Would popsicles and ice candies be banned in such an event?

In many cultures, the tongue of animals is enjoyed as a delicacy. As cannibalistic it sounds, (a human tongue enjoying the taste and texture of a Buffalo tongue!) there are cultures that swear by its taste.

However, tongues, apart from being tasted, can be spoken too. Think of the first language you learned. Most likely it was your mother tongue, wasn’t it?

Tongues speak of our health too. Think of every visit to you’ve made to your family doctor when your tongue was under the spotlight of the doctor’s torch.

But apart from being in the spotlight at the doctor’s clinic, the tongue prefers a private, reclusive life. It only expresses itself with fervent passion in our private moments, under dim lights, with our beloved. Is an erotic union even conceivable without the profuse use of this sensual organ? Any sexual congress would be rather dry, wouldn’t it?

As diverse as this organ is, it serves even more functions in the anatomy of other animals. It’s a carpet cleaner for the feline family, a slingshot cum prey catcher in chameleons, a smell receptor in snakes, a temperature regulator in the canine.

In us humans, it serves two primary functions-
a) aiding in ingestion of food
b) enabling expression of thoughts

Most of the problems of modern life are rooted in how we use our tongue. It’s easy to become a slave to flavours and inflict the body with calories stripped of nutrition. And just as mindlessly, we can inflict painful wounds in the hearts of the ones we care about with our carelessness with our tongue. As they, words can wound deeper than a sword.

Then perhaps, how wisely we use our tongue holds the key to our bodily and social health.

Who knew of the versatility and significance of this elegant pink muscle!  
We can be sure that even the tongue, at this moment, after reading through all of its merits, is tongue-tied!