It seems that a lot of Indo-European languages use a common word to denote both a language, and the tongue (body part).

In French, the same word is used for both aspects (langue). It is also the case in Croatian (jezik). Spanish uses lengua for the body part, and idioma for a language. English uses respectively tongue and language. But both in Spanish and English, the body part can also mean a language/dialect.

It seems that this was already the case in Latin (lingua). When did this extension of meaning from the body part "tongue" take place?

Are there Indo-European languages where this is not the case? Is it the case in a lot of non Indo-European languages?

  • In Swedish tongue is "tunga" and language is "språk". You don't use tongue to denote language.
    – Midas
    Commented Dec 9, 2017 at 21:38
  • 1
    Many Indo-European languages use a common word to denote both weapons and the arm (body part). Ditto for the bottom of any vertically-oriented structure and the foot (body part). The human body is projected onto everything that humans see, touch, build, hear, and think about. This is what Protagoras meant by "Man is the measure of all things". The process is called Metaphor.
    – jlawler
    Commented Dec 10, 2017 at 19:33
  • In (one of) the Swedish translation(s) of the Icelandic sagas (cannot remember which one), tongue is used in that sense (dansk tunga), iirc.
    – Tomas By
    Commented Dec 10, 2017 at 20:47
  • English "speech" is sometimes used in the sense of "dialect/language", and is cognate to Swedish "språk".
    – Locoluis
    Commented Dec 11, 2017 at 12:42

2 Answers 2


Perhaps you will find this as useful - Link

Head over to the last paragraph before the next topic starts and it emphasises that the word started to be used in 11th century as the word-composite "Mother Tongue".

The article proceeds to establish how the pattern came to be adapted in different languages over the time.

Also, for second part of the question, Hindi (an Indo-European language spoken in Northern parts of India) uses distinct words for the two. While the word for tongue (body part) is jihwa or jeebh(in vernacular usage), written as जिह्वा (jihwa) (IPA: /d͡ʑiɦ.ʋɑ́ː/) and जीभ (jeebh) (IPA: [dʒiːbʱ]) respectively, the word for language is भाषा (bhasha) (IPA: bhāṣā).

To say that the pattern is not found in non-germanic languages is not entirely true though, since Urdu (a Persianised and standardised register of Hindustani language) uses the same word for both of them, the word being زبانِ (zabaan) (IPA: zəbaːn).

How and why they were influenced? Trade routes. While the countries and subsequent languages near the areas speaking Germanic languages in 11th century came to use the similar word-composite, thus causing a bi-partitioning of the word leading to the two popular meanings.

Also, the word in written religious context appears in the form of Glossolalia over here.

  • 1
    Lots of languages use the same word for "language" and "tongue". For example Latin "lingua". This has nothing to do with the influence of "Germanic languages in the 11th century". This is a preposterous suggestion.
    – fdb
    Commented Dec 8, 2017 at 23:44
  • I'm sorry for the misconception. What I wanted to say was that while the cultures under direct or upto a some degree of indirect (I trade with them, you trade with me but you don't trade with them) trade links from Germanic languages came to adapt the terminology, the others didn't.
    – Akshayanti
    Commented Dec 8, 2017 at 23:59
  • 1
    Ukrainian uses two distinct words, язик (jazyk) for "tongue" and мова (mova) for language, no interchangeable usage is possible.
    – Yellow Sky
    Commented Dec 8, 2017 at 23:59

According to Wiktionary, this is true for several Semitic (Hebrew, Arabic, Amharic, Maltese), Turkic (Turkish, Turkmen, Kazakh), and Finno-Ugric (Finnish, Hungarian, Eastern Mari) languages, and some others including Mongolian, Hausa,Zulu.

Whether any of these have been influenced by each other, or by Indo-European, I can't say.

I observe the biblical "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth", which is often interpreted to mean "May I lose the power of speech".

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