Tongue

Never one to pass up on the opportunity to talk about language, I was only too happy to accede to the request of one of my readers and write about ‘tongue’. This word has a double meaning as the organ in the mouth and also ‘language’. Most apt for the purposes of this blog, I feel.

On seeing the spelling of the word, with the -gue ending, you may be forgiven for wondering if it derives from French, as this continues to be a common ending in that language. But spelling, as we have seen before, may be deceptive, and it seems that in this case the spelling does not reveal the origin. Indeed, in Middle English, it may be spelt variously tung, tong, tongge, tungen, tongan, among others.

If we take a look at how the word was used in Middle English, we can compare with today’s usage:

we gladly opyn oure tonge largely forto speke

We gladly use our tongue, largely in order to speak

 

This is taken from A Deuout Treatyse Called the Tree and xii Frutes of the Holy Goost dating to 1460. You can see that while the turn of phrase may have moved on, the meaning of the word ‘tongue’ is the same. Going back a few hundred years, to Early Middle English in the twelfth century, we can see something similar:

 

Nim þisse wyrte leaf, leȝe under þa tungan

Take this leaf and place under the tongue

 

While I am not in the habit of placing leaves under my tongue, I can readily understand it, and it seems that the meaning of the word is unchanged. But where did it come from? Not, it would seem, from French, where the word is ‘langue‘. Instead, our answer lies in Old English, where we can find the form tunge (in the examples below it appears as ‘tungan‘ in the accusative and dative cases).

 

Ic hæfde ðe lætran tungan

I have a sluggish tongue

This comes from the Junius Manuscript, a collection of poetry in Old English telling the Biblical story of Exodus dating to around 930. Another example, from just a short period earlier:

 

mid tungan fácenfullíce dydon

they used the tongue deceitfully

 

This is from the Old English Psalterium, which was written some time during the late 800s. So it would appear that this word comes from a Germanic root, and indeed the theory is that it derives from Proto-Germanic *tungon, which would also be the source of Dutch tong, German Zunge, and others. The meaning remains the same – ‘tongue’ in the sense of both the organ and speech. Stepping back a little further, the proposed root in Proto-Indo-European is *dnghu, which would also have meant ‘tongue’.

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