TONGUE (לָשׁוֹן, H4383, γλω̂σσα, G1185).

Biological Definition

The tongue is a symmetrical, mobile, muscular, unpaired organ, situated in the mouth. It extends from its attachment to the hyoid bone and epiglottis in the upper part of the front of the neck to its free end at the incisor teeth. It is shaped like a pyramid, flattened above and below, rounded at its angles, and terminated in front by a blunt point. Composed almost entirely of interlacing muscle fibers, its surfaces, which are exposed to the secretions of the mouth and throat, are covered with mucous membrane. Within this membrane on the upper surface of the tongue are located gustatory papillae, or taste buds. Five kinds of such papillae are recognized. They are predominantly located toward the back of the tongue where it approaches the throat. It is by means of these taste buds that the tongue performs its prime function as a sense organ, namely, detection of taste. In fact, it is the only unpaired sense organ of the body.

The sense of touch is also highly developed in the tongue so that it can locate food particles in the mouth, and in particular between the teeth, which would otherwise evade attention. Guiding and maintaining food between the upper and lower teeth, the tongue is of importance in mastication. It also aids in the acts of sucking, swallowing, and spitting of salvia and upper respiratory secretions and excretions. Finally, it should be pointed out that the tongue is an important organ of speech in that it facilitates the pronunciation of words.

From the physician’s standpoint, the custom of having a patient protrude his tongue is meaningful. This is because certain systemic diseases of the human body manifest their presence with alterations of the tongue, such as, allergies, pellagra, sprue, pernicious anemia, iron deficiency and vitamin deficiencies. Moreover, a paralysis of one-half of the tongue (i.e., right or left) reveals itself in such an examination by reason of the deviation of the tongue to the affected side. This may be indicative of a diseased condition in the brain region such as stroke from internal hemmorhage, thrombosis of an artery, or brain tumor.


Almost invariably for either lashon, or glossa the latter word with the cognates heteroglossos, "of strange tongues" (1Co 14:21), glossodes, "talkative," English Versions of the Bible "full of tongue" (Sirach 8:3; 9:18), glossotomeo, "to cut out the tongue" (2 Macc 7:4), diglossos, "double-tongued" (Sirach 5:9; 28:13).

In Job 20:12, "Though wickedness be sweet in his mouth, though he hide it under his tongue," the figure is that of an uncultured man rolling a choice morsel around in his mouth so as to extract the utmost flavor. In Ps 10:7; 66:17 (Revised Version margin), however "under the tongue" means "in readiness to utter," while in So 4:11, "Honey and milk are under thy tongue," the pleasure of a caress is described. To "divide their tongue" (Ps 55:9) is to visit on offenders the punishment of Babel.

Commentary on Biblical Usage

It is in view of the relation to speech that the tongue is referred to in the Scriptures as a potent force. It is stated that death and life are in its power (Prov 18:21). James elaborates on this when he refers to the tongue as untamable and an unruly evil, full of deadly poison (James 3:8), and as a fire, a world of iniquity (3:6). Paul, in turn, refers to the tongue as an instrument of deceit (Rom 3:13) characterizing the unregenerate man.

The word tongue is used with reference to the various languages spoken by mankind. Paul in referring to polyglot linguistic ability in this regard contrasts it with what may be termed the unspoken language of love (1 Cor 13:1).

The apostle John in Revelation 5:9 and 7:9 brings out the fact that Christ’s redemption is to be proclaimed in every tongue, hence universally.

Bibliography and Further Reading

  • H. Gray, Anatomy of the Human Body, 27th Ed. (1959), 1230-1237.

  • G. A. Bennett, “Tongue,” EBr (1963), XXII, 286-288.

  • M. Heinemann, “Tongue, Diseases of,” EBr (1963), XXII, 288.

  • (Author not given), “Tongues, Gift of,” EBr (1963), XXII, 288, 289.
  • See Also

  • Confusion of Tongues

  • Pentecost