Dictionary.com definitions:

tongue - the usually movable organ in the floor of the mouth in humans and most vertebrates, functioning in eating, in tasting, and, in humans, in speaking.

lingua - the tongue or a part like a tongue

Both words have the same meaning.

Why is the word "lingua" almost not used in spoken language? And in what cases can the word lingua be used?

  • 3
    Hi Mikhail, welcome to ELL! Please could you add some sources for your definitions into the question? You can edit your question and follow the instructions to add these in as links
    – Gamora
    Nov 11, 2019 at 13:39
  • Note that in English, "tongue" is also used in the meaning of "language" (exactly the same two meanings of the original Latin root of the word 'language'... "lingua"= usually-movable-organ-in-floor-of-mouth OR language; or in the intermediate French, "langue"). Nov 12, 2019 at 10:15
  • 3
    While lingua isn't a proper English word, English does have a lot of this - often two or three words for the same thing; one from old English, one from French, and one from Latin (ie: {kingly, royal, regal}; {house, mansion, domicile}; {woods, forest}; {answer, reply}, {yearly, annual}, etc...).
    – J...
    Nov 12, 2019 at 12:41
  • Exactly the same as the difference between "armpit" and "axilla". Everyone calls it an armpit, except for doctors, who like to have names for things that their patients won't understand. Nov 13, 2019 at 8:18

5 Answers 5


"Lingua" is not an English word. To my knowledge it is only found (in English) in the expression lingua franca which comes from Italian and refers to a "common language" between two or more groups of people. It is a loan word.

When referring to the anatomical thing, we always say "tongue" and never "lingua."

"Lingua" itself is Latin, and this root is the basis for several English words like "language," "linguistics," "bilingual"; as well as scientific names in anatomy like "lingual artery."

  • 4
    It’s also a technical term used in anatomy and biology.
    – ColleenV
    Nov 11, 2019 at 15:25
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    @ColleenV Can you cite any examples? I can add it to the answer, but in my quick research just now I could only find a brief mention that "lingua" is a Latin root on which e.g. "lingual artery" is based, but nothing using "lingua" itself as an actual word for the tongue or any part of it.
    – TypeIA
    Nov 11, 2019 at 17:07
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    I saw that it was a technical term used in anatomy, but the uses I can find with a quick search seem to use it as a classification of the organ, much like Latin names for plants. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/14964052 The tongue (L. lingua; G. glossa) functions as a digestive organ...
    – ColleenV
    Nov 11, 2019 at 17:17
  • 5
    As a side note, in Italian both "tongue" and "language" are usually translated as "lingua" when you refer to the "main" language someone speaks, like English or Italian. There's another word, "linguaggio" (sounds a lot like "language", eh?) which actually refers to the kind of language you're using (as in "formal language") but many Italian people forget about the distinction and use "lingua" and "linguaggio" interchangeably.
    – ChatterOne
    Nov 12, 2019 at 7:45
  • 8
    @Chat In English, tongue can mean "language" as well.
    – user3395
    Nov 12, 2019 at 9:08

lingua isn't used on its own, but the latin root is part of a lot of words.

  • sublingual - below the tongue
  • linguist - someone who studies languages
  • bilingual - someone who speaks 2 languages
  • linguine (or linguini) - a delicious pasta, that somehow relates to tongues.
  • 3
    Also cunnilingus, derived from the Latin words for "tongue" and a particular piece of female anatomy. ;)
    – nick012000
    Nov 12, 2019 at 11:21
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    That word also sprang to mind, although I haven’t looked up the etymology... I had a good run at this company, time for an unsafe google search and a talk with HR in 3... 2... Nov 12, 2019 at 14:14
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    just to be more precise, the kind of pasta is "linguine" at plural and "linguina" at singular....and yes, it means something like "little tongue(s)" in Italian, and I confirm is delicious with seafood Nov 12, 2019 at 15:05
  • @CarmineIngaldi, thanks will fix spelling... I only added your spelling first because the other spelling was also in my english dictionary... possibly a hypercorrection, but it is in the language now :/ Nov 12, 2019 at 16:07
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    @nick012000 Note that the Latin word for that piece of female anatomy was the "standard" word in Latin times and a curse word to us, while what we consider the "standard" word is actually the latin word for a (sword) sheath. Which is fitting imagery, but also demonstrates a general trend in language evolution where the standard term becomes degratory and the "euphemistic" term becomes the new standard term. For other examples of the same effect, look at words for people with mental health issues (e.g. idiot, retard, mongoloid), or people with a darker skin colour (not saying that one).
    – Arthur
    Nov 13, 2019 at 10:32

The simple explanation is that in anatomy, latin terms are used (for adjectives "dorsal"= of the back, "ventral"= of the belly/front, "jugular"=of the throat, "ischemic", "sciatic", "cranial", ... ; or for parts, like "retina", "vena cava", "atrium", "vestibula", "cranium", ... ). In English, you will find "lingua"/"lingual" almost exclusively used in an anatomy context, because there it's "proper".

One of the advantages of using Latin is that a first year's med (or bio) student starts from a blank slate (I'd say, tabula rasa): There's no imprecise, overlapping terminology, no confusing half-synonyms (no "tummy", "belly", "stomach" for generally the same region). The other advantage is that (as lingua franca in classical learning) older & foreign language texts use exactly the same verbs and adjectives; important as much scientific research is published in English but not written nor read by native speakers.


I cannot think of any use of lingua however sublingual means under the tongue. Sub means under or below and lingual means tongue. The word tongue is not used for the anatomical structure alone. For instance, the tongue of the shoe.

  • I would rephrase your third sentence to "The word tongue is not only used for the anatomical structure". I initially interpreted it as "The word tongue is not used for the anatomical structure when considering the anatomical structure separate from anything else." - which is wrong. Nov 12, 2019 at 9:45

The noun lingua is not used (Is it even in an English dictionary?). It's probably been made redundant in the formation of the English language from its ancestors. Tongue is always used as the noun, and can mean "language" as well, for example mother tongue (the language one learned from one's mother).

On the other hand, the adjectival form lingual is used, meaning "related to the tongue". Not common on its own. Prefixed forms are more common, and can relate to both meanings. Sublingual: under the tongue. Bilingual: fluent in two languages.

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