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FISSURE: A Life Between Cultures




Humans tell stories to explain why Earth is covered by so many tongues. The Tower of Babel is the story I heard as a child. A cautionary tale about folks building a tower into the sky to reach the Holy One. The Holy One got mad because humans were overreaching. Suddenly the builders couldn't understand each other anymore, so they had to stop work. Too many tongues. But why shouldn't we want to touch holiness? With our hearts. With our tongues.


At the Pike Place Market, I stopped to admire the vibrant scarves the artist was laying out on her table. She caressed each silk beauty with her fingers, but for me, it was a tongue thing. "I want to lick them," I said.

"Then they're doing what I want them to."

We smiled.

Gorgeous colors, gleaming smoothness––round and glossy beads, jewels, small stones from beside a trail. They all look so licking-delicious. There must be some neurons that link the pathways between the eyes and the tongue.


The tongue is an organ formed of eight muscles in humans. Four of them are attached to bone, and four are not. We share the presence of this organ with all other tetrapods––four-legged beasts. The tongue is replete with nerves and blood vessels, and its surface is covered with papillae, the tiny bumps we call tastebuds. It is the main organ of our sense of taste, and it enables digestion by helping us chew. It empowers humans to speak and four-leggeds to vocalize.


I played trombone in high school and college and for a while afterwards. Inserting the tongue repeatedly and rapidly into a brass instrument's mouthpiece creates separate notes on a sustained tone. It's the same with a digeridoo, the long, hollowed, wooden instrument made and decorated with pointillist paintings by Australian Indigenes. I had one once, and it was made from a long, hardened section of hollowed cactus. Having played trombone helped me learn my digeridoo, and tonguing into it had the same effect––breaking up drone notes into short bursts. Played well (by others, I might add) the music raises goosebumps on my skin.


The average human tongue in men weighs about 2.5 ounces, and in women, about 2.1. For such a small organ, it performs a hefty load of work. It is an organ of sense, of connection through language and human intimacy. Oh, for a thousand tongues to sing the praises of the tongue.


So much of my life is about language and always has been. Different tongues pique my curiosity: How have they been formed? How do people use them or not use them? My parents used Dutch to exclude––when they didn't want us to know what they were talking about. My identity is wrapped up in tongues and in the spaces between tongues. Human identity is ever bound to our Mother Tongue. Having language is about connecting, communicating, knowing people more deeply. The purpose of language is not exclusion.

Diné who don't know me, when they realize, I am not even close to being a fluent speaker, considerately switch to US English––another way of using language. My friends who know that I have some knowledge, speak both US English and Diné bizaad when they're with me. The minuscule size of my little bag of Diné words is a reflection of the In-Between identity I struggle to embrace.

I have in my possession a bag of tongues. I imagine it is a bag I have sewn from a royal blue and orange and green Pendleton blanket. In this bag lie my two most well-developed tongues––US English and Danish.

The tongue I wish I knew fully is Diné bizaad. When my Diné friends were denied their language, it was denied me, too. Government and mission policies made it so I couldn't learn the language from my peers.

When we take something from one group of people, everyone loses.

I can read German, so it's also in my bag of tongues. I used to be able to speak it. I can read Norwegian because it's so similar to Danish. I understand quite a bit of spoken Swedish but can barely read it, which shows how differently we may pack diverse tongues into our language bags.
I traveled to Poland because I needed to see Auschwitz. While I was there, I picked up a tiny bag of ten Polish words. In New Zealand, I learned a few Maori words. I read a lot of Jewish literature and lived with a Jewish family once, so I know a smattering of Yiddish. High school Latin helps me with Spanish.


Our tongues are attached to the floor of the mouth by the frenulum, a mucous membrane. When the frenulum is too short and too thick, it renders speech, eating, and swallowing difficult. We say someone with that kind of frenulum is tongue-tied. The solution is to snip the frenulum to loosen the tongue.

On the other hand, tongue-tied is when you can't find your words.

By contrast, a teller of secrets has a loose tongue. Too many words.


The Latin word for "tongue" is "lingua," which is also the Latin word for "speech." Many everyday English words come from "lingua"––language, linguist, lingual, bilingual, multilingual, cunnilingus, lingo, to name a few.


My mother was rarely given to silliness, but sometimes we would tease her, and then she would stick out her tongue at us, and we would all laugh. Her too.

After living in New Zealand, which the Maori call Aotearoa, The Land of the Long White Cloud, I am always deeply moved when I hear and watch the Maori haka. The haka is a group war dance or challenge. It touches me most profoundly when it is performed to honor someone of warrior character––for instance, when a firefighter has died. Their companions execute a haka for them. Loud, energetic chanting and roaring are accompanied by the dramatic sticking out of tongues. It can show prowess, challenge, intimidation, bravery, or honor.

My Mother Tongue is the US variety of English. I also heard Dutch and Diné bizaad before I left my mother's womb. Dutch from my father's parents and sometimes from my mother and father. Diné bizaad from the Diné man who was my father's big brother, his mentor, at Bible School, and especially from Ed's wife, Ella, who talked more than Ed.

The church of my youth was not a shouting church. Members scoffed at Pentecostal churches, where people spoke in tongues. "Holy Rollers," they called them. Once, when I was ten years old, I went to that kind of church with my friend. It was loud and mysterious, fervid. The worshippers were heirs of the biblical apostles who had tongues of fire land on their heads at Pentecost. All that emotion scared me, but I sure hoped I would get to see tongues of fire.

The tongue of a cow makes a delicious sandwich. It's been a long time since I saw a beef tongue in the meat section of a supermarket, but one place I shop has real, live butchers, and I can purchase a tongue if I ask. A cow tongue weighs three to four pounds. I bring one home and simmer it in salted water with lemon slices, cloves, coriander seeds, and peppercorns. When it is tender, which comes after hours of cooking, I slice it thin, and the slivers are smooth on my tongue.

The tongues we speak bring us the taste of words. The muscles wrap themselves around teeth and cheeks and lips to make the sounds. The tongues we speak also present us with lavish food flavors. From US English, mac and cheese. When I am being Dutch-American, I eat moes, a peasants' mix of mashed potatoes or rice with bacon fat, kale, and bacon pieces. At Christmas, my grandmother mailed us the flaky, buttery, Dutch almond pastry, banket. In Diné bizaad, I can never get enough dahdíníilghaazh––puffy golden fry bread and with it, mutton stew. My friend Pita says my ris alamande, the Danish Christmas rice pudding, made with almond slivers, whipped cream, and cherries, is food from the gods. In Jewish homes, at Passover, I eat brisket and matzoh ball soup, charoset, and bitter herbs.

When she was in middle school, my daughter asked if she could get her tongue pierced. I had by then learned that it was useful to say no by saying yes––little to no resistance from a teen. So I said, "Yes, but you will have to save enough money ahead of time for the piercing and for treating any infections that could result." She never brought it up again.

Conquerors, colonizers, and occupiers the world over have, through concerted effort, including physical and cultural violence, erased Indigenous tongues. Irish Gaelic and Scottish Gaelic were nearly eradicated by the takeover of the British colonizers. It happened through violence, through the perceived prestige of speaking English, and sometimes through more benign intercultural contact. Scottish Gaelic is now an endangered language. Irish Gaelic is making a comeback through revitalization efforts.

I dream sometimes that I am speaking Diné bizaad fluently with one of my friends. I feel overjoyed. Then, before the dream is over, I realize I am speaking Danish, the only language other than US English in which I am fluent. The power of my disappointment wakens me every time.


In Chinese medicine, the tongue is used to diagnose health problems. Is the tongue coated? What color is the coating? Does the tongue tremble when at rest? Are there tooth impressions on the sides of the tongue? Once, when a Chinese medicine doctor had been treating me for a while, as always, she took a look at my tongue and exclaimed, "Oh! What's happened?" She went to work right away prescribing a new set of horrible-tasting herbs for me to make into a foul-smelling tea.


Throughout the US, the government and missionaries have tried to obliterate Indigenous languages. For more than a century, the speaking of US English was forced on school children. They were severely punished for speaking their Mother Tongue.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) estimates that half of the approximately 6,000 tongues spoken around the globe today are in danger of disappearing. By UNESCO standards, Diné bizaad is one of them.

The UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger asks, "Why preserve language diversity?" In the Diné Language Teachers' Association (DLTA) handbook for a Diné language revitalization project, Louise Benally gives this answer: "Diné bizaad and, through it, the cultural beliefs and practices that it imparts, is valuable because it is our identity. It makes us who we are. We have pride in the teachings, the beliefs, and the traditional songs and stories that provide us the foundation for being a Diné person. When we listen to Diné bizaad, it makes us feel good. It brings us home. When we listen to a Diné song, it moves us to cry, to laugh or just to be silent in awe."

The desire to lick things that are not food must be what makes adults tell children not to lick a metal pipe in winter. Otherwise, why would anyone even think of it? A tongue frozen to a pipe is consequently forever fixed within the repertoire of slapstick humor. Has anyone ever done it in real life?

And why is a wagon tongue even called a tongue? Who first named it that? I haven't been able to find out.

Tongues eating, speaking, playing grant us sampling tongues, twisting tongues, coding tongues, frozen tongues, lashing tongues, flaming tongues, reclaiming tongues, sly tongues and honest tongues, faltering tongues, silver tongues, licking tongues. (After Ross Gay on "skateboarding eyes" in Inciting Joy)


© Anna Redsand, 2024. All Rights Reserved.


"Tongues" was first published in 

Fertile: An Anthology of Earth Poems and Prose from the High Desert and Mountains of the Four Corners Region.

Fertile, with its richness of diverse voices is available for purchase at https://www.annaredsand.com/contact 


by contacting me in a message through the Contact page.

You can read more about Fertile and sample some other writers from the anthology at https://www.annaredsand.com/blog/posts/43466.

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