Mighty Red Pen

March 1, 2010

Ode to the uvula

Filed under: At home with MRP,Kidspeak — mighty red pen @ 8:04 pm

Scene: The kitchen at la Casa de MRP. The sound of scampering as D. (age 3 1/2) rushes in:

D.: Mommy, can you show me that dangly thing in your mouth?
MRP: My uvula?
D.: Is that what yours is called?
MRP: Yes.
D.: What about the dangly thing in my mouth? What is that called?
MRP: Also a uvula.
D.: Oh. [pause] Is everyone’s dangly thing in their mouth called that?

As an aside: Have you ever really looked at your uvula? Considered your uvula? Said the word uvula over and over again? Ever felt that it was about one letter away from being a totally dirty word? And looking it up in the dictionary doesn’t help. Merriam Webster defines it as “the pendent fleshy lobe in the middle of the posterior border of the soft palate.” Um, ew.

If anyone knows the function of the uvula, I’d like to know. I have a feeling that question is just around the corner.


  1. I am most definitely not a physician, but as far as I know the uvula functions to ensure that food ends up in the esophagus and air in the trachea, with (in theory) nothing going down the wrong tube. I believe it also plays a role in some of our various vocalizations.

    Comment by ddpej — March 1, 2010 @ 9:04 pm | Reply

  2. I love the idea that everyone’s uvula might have a unique name. Its own name comes from the Latin for little grape. Yes to most of your asides. I’ve looked at it, considered it, stared at and studied it. I’ve said it aloud on occasion, but never over and over again (until just now). It is definitely an almost-filthy word. Not long ago I was pondering similar matters because my nephew had some trouble with his tonsils.

    Unless I misremember, the uvula doesn’t control which tube food goes down — the epiglottis does this — but it does flip up to stop food going into the nasal cavity. It also plays a role in human vocalisation, being used in the articulation of certain consonantal sounds, such as the R of standard French. There are uvular plosives too, and I think it’s used in click consonants. And snoring. I imagine it has other functions too: as far as I know, it secretes saliva and leucocytes, and probably other stuff.

    Comment by Stan — March 3, 2010 @ 8:52 am | Reply

  3. We need the uvula for German and French. Uvular sounds are found in many other languages, like Semitic and Salishan languages. Most click consonants are velar, not uvular.

    Comment by goofy — March 3, 2010 @ 2:26 pm | Reply

  4. Correct. The mighty uvula may be small in size…but definitely necessary for any voiced uvular fricatives…not to be confused with a glottal fricative. Which sounds like a curse word, but isn’t.

    Yeah…I was a voice major. What made you ask??

    Comment by Frume Sarah — March 3, 2010 @ 9:50 pm | Reply

  5. I used to say my L’s with my uvula! Ira Glass still does.

    Comment by Neal — March 4, 2010 @ 12:08 pm | Reply

  6. There’s a paper (details at the end) which proposes a few things. I lost my uvula in an unfortunate smelting accident (really a botched tonsillectomy) a few years ago, and since I’ve been told the uvula does all kinds of things. A popular one is that it plays a role in speech. I can’t figure that one out, I’ve noticed absolutely no change in my voice, and I’m a musician with recordings done before and after the removeula with no noticeable difference. After all, it seems speech is mainly produced by the vocal cords and the shape and position of the mouth and tongue. People have told me I cannot make the Chewbacca noise now, but I never could anyway. There are some other bogus reasons but I’ll skip them as they’re all over the internet. The paper I reference at the end supports the theory that the uvula is a highly organized lubricating organ and can produce large quantities of thin saliva and secrete them suddenly. The short story is that it swings back and forth lubricating the palate and throat. This holds up to my experience, as the back of my throat is much drier than it used to be, I notice as it’s more difficult to sing with the dryness which I counteract with beer. However, one thing that I haven’t seen anywhere is the uvulas role in facilitating the slippage of mucus and phlegm down the throat or out of the mouth. If you already have extra throat and palate dryness from less lubrication, you’ll notice the mucus seeping down the back of your nose is thicker than it would be. A proper uvula would help that mucus slide down and dangle where it can be forcefully blown off (think loogie). Without said uvula, the mucus sticks to the top of the back of the palate where it is difficult to blow off making things very uncomfortable as well as often stimulating the gag reflex. The buildup of mucus can occlude the passageway, not necessarily enough to prohibit breathing but it can make a difference when singing. So there. Sorry to revive an old post but I figured it was about time I said something.

    Back, GW (12/2004). “Why do we have a uvula?: literature review and a new theory”. Clinical otolaryngology and allied sciences (0307-7772), 29 (6), p. 689.
    DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2273.2004.00886.x

    Comment by phil — June 9, 2010 @ 12:18 am | Reply

    • Wow, Phil, thanks for this detailed and personal explanation. And thanks, also, for the word “removeula.” It’s way better than “uvulectomy.”

      Comment by mighty red pen — June 9, 2010 @ 8:23 am | Reply

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