Tongues and tongs and medieval monks

The picture above made me laugh. One of those times when you think, "Hmm...spelling really does matter sometimes".

But why do we spell this:tongue but these: tongs?

Let's take tong first. We spell this as it sounds, like song, oblong, dongle.  Easy!

But tongue rhymes with hung (at least in my accent), so why the o and why the u?

To understand the o, look at some other words that use o when it sounds like u: come, some, love, monk etc. In the middle ages many written letters took the form of up and down strokes (called minims):

Can you identify these letters? (They don't make a word but they are in alphabetical order):

Quite tricky, isn't it? So if some and love were spelt as they sound they would look like this:

And if the word for the thing in your mouth was spelt tung, it would look like this:

The u and n are not so easy to read together. Compare it with :

So the monks, who were the ones who wrote in those days, replaced the u in some common words with o. It made it easier to read but more difficult to write!
Now, what about the u after the g in tongue? To find out about this I consulted my go-to etymology and read there:

The spelling of the ending of the word apparently is a 14c. attempt to indicate proper pronunciation, but the result is "neither etymological nor phonetic, and is only in a very small degree historical" [OED].

So in other words, someone thought it would be easier to read the g in tongue correctly than it would be in tong or tung. We don't know why they thought this and, well, they were probably wrong (possibly right in their own accent), but we are now stuck with this spelling.

Anyway, guys, please don't touch the bread with your hands or tongues. Especially tongues!

The bread image has been circulating on social media but I couldn't find the original source I'm afraid.
The tongue image is from:
The tongs image:
The monk image is from
The medieval writing is done with

1 comment:

  1. This is a good one!!
    I didn't understand the part in which it says that the words come, some, love and monk sound like a U! that's new for me.
    Miren Beamonte