One Helluva Uvula

u·vu·la

ˈyo͞ovyələ/

nounANATOMY

noun: uvula; plural noun: uvulae; noun: palatine uvula; plural noun: palatine uvulae; plural noun: palatine uvulas

1. 
a fleshy extension at the back of the soft palate that hangs above the throat.

 

OK, so now we know what it’s called.

But what does it do other than hang out all day looking, uh, pretty?

Mouth_illustration-Otis_Archives

By Duncan Kenneth Winter , via Wikimedia Commons

This always amazes me about the field of science.  We are sending rovers to Mars and interpreting data from millions of years ago, yet we don’t know what this protruding lump of flush in our very own throat is for.

It’s just dangling there.

A bit like this monkey.

monkey

Image courtesy of Worakit Sirijinda/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Do not fret though.   Scientists have dedicated time to this fleshy pendulum and we do, of course, have theories.

Got to love those theories.  You know nothing in Science is actually fact, it’s all theory.

einstein mug

Here’s my own theory:

IMG_4542

 

Back to The Theories of the Uvula

Studies suggest that it probably has more than one function.  So without further ado,  here are some thoughts:

1.  That it guides the flow of food and water down our throats.  A major function is thought to be its role in blocking any food and water from entering the nasal cavity.  A good thing seeing as nasal regurgitation during dinner is not a good look.  Assumptions have also been made that the uvula is an evolutionary remnant of mammals which drink while bending their neck downward.

2.  That it plays a role in the articulation of some sounds.  Have you ever stood in front of a mirror, opened your mouth, yodeled and watched it dance around?

No?

I bet you will now.

It is specifically linked to the the ‘gutteral consonants’ and is even mentioned in the term ‘voiced uvular fricative’ (love that).  These are basically sounds in language (not English) that use the back of the throat.  Like the ‘R’ in Paris when pronounced by a Traditional French Man.

Traditional_French_man

By Kim (Flickr: Traditional French man), via Wikimedia Commons

snoring-elephant-small

Oh, and the uvula is very active in snoring.  Just putting that there, it’s not a useful function, unless you love the sound of snore, it’s just a reason that some people might have it removed.

 

(p.s. elephants don’t have an Uvula and they don’t sleep tucked under duvets)

 

 

 

 

3.  The uvula has been shown to secrete large quantities of saliva.  Theories have suggested that its role is to keep the throat nice and lubricated.  Think of it like basting a chicken. We’ve got to keep adding that butter saliva to keep things moist.

roast chicken

 

4.  Perhaps the most obvious.  Its contribution to the gag reflex.

Probably not wise to do this then.

uvulapiercing

Uvula Piercing via HeadOvMetal

All in all, the Uvula is a highly sophisticated structure with a complex network of muscles and secretory organs.

To quote Israeli Scientists from their paper ‘The Riddle of the Uvula”:

 “Both uvula and speech serve to differentiate human beings from animals. Our conclusion is that the uvula is possibly an accessory organ of speech, and may be another marker of human evolution that differentiates man from other mammals.”

 

So there you have it.  We’re not entirely sure what it’s entirely for.

But it makes us unique, and that makes it something worth writing about.

(And for a select few,  I may have just saved you from a lifetime thinking it was your tonsil(s).  You’re welcome.)

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2 Comments

  • Canary49 says:

    I had a blissful 5 minutes speculating how the uvula evolved to support the French language – magnifique non? But then I worried that as French is a declining language and spoken English doesn’t require a uvula maybe the uvula could disappear in future generations. But it’s OK, there are at least three other reasons to have one, apparently, so the uvula is safe.
    Now I must get back to yodelling in front of my mirror – the neighbours will be impressed.

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