Tasty Tidbits: 7 Fascinating Facts About the Tongue

Try to say this phrase as many times as you can: “The sixth sick sheikh’s sixth sheep’s sick.” If you successfully said it even once, pat yourself on the back. That’s the hardest tongue twister in the English language, at least according to Guinness World Records.


Better yet, why not reward your tongue with a tasty treat? After all, your tongue worked hard to help you say that combination of words. While you enjoy your light snack, feed your mind with these seven fascinating facts about the tongue.


1. Your tongue and your teeth sometimes work together to form sounds.

Tongues get the most credit for helping us say tricky phrases like “fresh fried fish.” But, our tongues couldn’t create all the required sounds without our teeth. You form many common sounds when you place your tongue against different parts of your teeth.


Which sounds need both teeth and tongue? Here are some teeth-tongue sounds found in English words:


  • The “th” sounds in words like thin and this
  • “S” sounds in words like sip and bus
  • “Z” sounds in words like zebra and buzz
  • “T” sounds in words like time and chocolate
  • “D” sounds in words like dark and hard


2. You can and should clean your tongue.
After you eat, you probably unconsciously run your tongue across your teeth. This motion allows your tongue to clean your teeth. But what cleans your tongue? That job is up to you.


Like other surfaces in your mouth, your tongue has bacteria on it. Some bacteria on your tongue grow nowhere else in your mouth. These bacteria can contribute to bad breath if you don’t clear them away. To clean your tongue, gently rub your toothbrush’s bristles over your tongue after you brush your teeth.


3. Your tongue can sense five different tastes.
Your tongue has thousands of taste buds. They’re invisible to the naked eye, but they help us to distinguish tastes from one another. Taste buds perceive five basic tastes:


  • Salty
  • Bitter
  • Sweet
  • Sour
  • Umami (savory or meaty)


You may have heard that taste buds for different tastes sit on separate parts of the tongue. That’s actually a myth. All taste bud types exist all over the tongue.


4. Some tongue muscles work without skeletal help.
Your tongue looks like one big muscle, but it’s actually eight muscles. Four of these muscles attach to bone. These are the extrinsic muscles. They let your tongue move side to side and in and out.


The other four muscles are intrinsic. Unlike any other muscles, they don’t attach to any bones. Yet, even without supporting bones, these intrinsic muscles control the shape of the tongue. If you can roll your tongue, you do it using the intrinsic muscles.


5. Curling your tongue is not just genetic.
Speaking of curling your tongue, have you ever heard that skill referred to as a genetic trait? That’s only partly true. Studies show that genetics contribute to whether people can roll their tongues or not, but other factors also influence this skill.


Some children learn to roll their tongues. They might be “non-rollers"”in early childhood but develop the skill by age 12 or 13. Also, some genetically identical twins don’t both exhibit the trait. One twin might develop the ability to roll the tongue while the other remains a non-roller forever.


6. Tongue burns usually heal quickly because taste buds regenerate.

Have you ever taken a sip of coffee, tea, or hot chocolate that was too hot? If so, you probably noticed that parts of your tongue felt sensitive for a few days. The hot liquid burned your tongue and destroyed a few taste buds.


Luckily, typical tongue burns don’t affect our sense of taste very long. That’s because our taste buds regenerate regularly. About every two weeks your tongue’s surface has entirely new taste buds.


7. Your tongue can warn you about health problems.
Most of the time, everyone’s tongue looks pink. When the tongue changes colour, it could be a sign of health problems. Watch out for these tongue colours:


  • White patches—possibly thrush (a yeast infection) or leukoplakia (excessive growth of tongue tissue)
  • Red—a symptom of some vitamin deficiencies, scarlet fever, or geographic tongue (when the red spots look like a map)
  • Black—usually stains from built up bacteria, darkly coloured foods, or tobacco use


Your tongue’s size might also indicate a health issue. Overweight people have more fat cells in their tongue than people at a healthy weight. This larger tongue size can lead to sleep apnea, a disorder marked by irregular breathing during sleep.


If you notice changes in your tongue’s appearance, ask your Edmonton dentist if the changes point to problems elsewhere.


Now that you know your tongue better, show it some appreciation. Incorporate tongue-cleaning into your nightly oral hygiene routine, and remember to consult your dentist if you notice anything unusual about your tongue.

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