Lick that

25th February 2000 at 00:00
(Photograph) - Picture by Manoj Shah. Imagine a firm and yellow lemon. Halve it with an imaginary knife, then squeeze the juice into your mouth.

You're just pretending, yes? But your tongue doesn't seem to realise.

Already it's working overtime, curling at the edges, preparing for that sour shower. Anyone would think it had a mind of its own.

But then tongues are like that - headstrong pets as much as organs. Speak out of turn? It wasn't you - it was your loose tongue. Next time you'll hold it. You'll stop it wagging, even if you have to bite it. For as Spinoza said: "Men govern nothing with more difficulty than their tongues."

Control the tongue, though, and you rise above all creation. Oh sure, there are animals that can fire a tongue into space and winch it back laden with insects. There are snakes that use their tongues to lure prey, and a whole gaggle of birds that use them to pick fruit.

Cats wash with them, cows rip up grass with them, flies suck putrid but no doubt nourishing liquids with them, and at least one family of bees gathers pollen with them.

But if these beasts would stop gobbling and slurping for an hour or two and try to get their tongues around half a dozen speech production exercises - well, they might find themselves ruling the planet.

Language. The word comes from lingua, Latin for tongue. How come the English version of this word begins with a "t"? Because some Germanic tribes insisted on pronouncing "lingua" as "dingua". Thanks guys.

But either way - language or tonguage - talking is the most important thing we humans do with our tongues. And as talking is the most important thing we humans do, that surely makes the tongue our most valuable tool.

Not surprisingly, the Internet is full of tongues. Tongue hygiene is big in the United States (Studies show that tongue cleaning is a whopping 700 per cent more effective at removing bacteria than simply brushing your tongue with a toothbrush.") and cyberspace is awash with adverts for patent tongue scrapers.

There are entire sites devoted to tongue piercing, tongue healing and tongue twisting ("Mommy made me mash my Mamp;Ms", from Deb, age 12). And for clarinetists, there's even a site explaining the art of double-tonguing ("I have discovered through experience that double tonguing is not only easier than triple tonguing but also more useful.") An Austrian chemist, we read, has invented an electronic tongue which will one day taste wine for us much as a video recorder watches films for us.

Will Wolfgang Buchberger's gadget make the human tongue redundant? It seems unlikely. Sure, it will analyse the wine's contents, sound a buzzer and print out a report.

But the really important bit about wine tasting comes later. That's when one taster turns to another and begins to talk animatedly about velvety chocolate, vanilla, old leather sofas and pencil sharpenings.

For as Sophocles said: "I see that everywhere among the race of men it is the tongue that wins and not the deed." And Sophocles wasn't talking about catching flies.

Web links: www.oink.demon.co.ukfuntt tonguet.htm - a big index of contributed tongue-twisters.

www.sneezy.orgclarinetStudy DoubleTonguing.html - instruction page for slow clarinetists.

www.cleanbreath.comfaq.html - an amusing ad for tongue scrapers.

www.eatbug.com - a site "totally devoted to the raising and eating of insects".

This picture was highly commended in the 1999 BG Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition and is reproduced in Wildlife Photographer of the Year, Fountain Press, pound;24.95, www.nhm.ac.ukWildPhoto


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