uvula

Look in the mirror and say la. Hold it – laaaaa – and open wide. Do you see that thing hanging in the back between the molars, sort of like a v between u and u? Well, OK, the molars are far to the side and all you really see is an arch with a thing hanging down like a single small grape on a vine (in fact, uvu looks more like a plunging neckline, doesn’t it?). But, as you may guess I’m about to say, that thing is called the uvula.

This clearly isn’t an onomatopoeic or haptically iconic word; it would be more like grgrgr if it were, since the uvula is back where one makes gargling sounds. In fact, that choking-on-it stop found in some languages (from the sandy – Arabic – to the snowy – Inuktitut), often transliterated as q (as in Iqaluit), is called a uvular stop. But the two written consonants in this word are up at the front of the mouth, and the glides leading into the vowels are mid-palate, although the repeating vowel – [u] – is indeed the English vowel sound positioned closest to the uvula, and the final vowel is, as we have seen, suited to the display of the same.

No, this word is the diminutive form of Latin uva, which means “grape.” It would have been a fun word to deal with in classical Latin, since in Latin – and in fact in English until the Modern period – u and v were not distinct letters. There was no consonant v; there was u, which was pronounced as a consonant as [w] and as a vowel as [u] and, in Latin, was written V. (“Small” letters came about after the classical Latin period, and u and v were, even in English, for a long time interchangeable shapes of the same letter.) So this word would have been written VVVLA and said [uwula]. Latin consonant shifting and English vowel transformations have long since altered our saying of it, so that now it sounds like a Singaporean imperative to look – perhaps to look at the back of your mouth: “You view lah.”

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