Tongue Bifurcation from a Linguistic Perspective

Phonetics research on cosmetic tongue bifurcation

Slides from ICPhS 2015 Oral Presentation: ICPhS2015BifurcSlides

Budd, Schellenberg & Gick (2015)

Bifurcated Tongue

Tongue bifurcation is an elective cosmetic body modification in which the adult human tongue tip is bisected medially, and allowed to heal into two tongue tips, with a split of approximately 1 – 2.5 cm. This gives an appearance (and perhaps function) of a forked or split tongue. This modification is present among progressive body modification community members. This research project investigates whether and to which measurable extents tongue bifurcation causes differences in the acoustic stream of fricative consonants. We are focusing on 6 sounds in English: [θ], [ð], [s], [z], [ʃ], [ʒ]. Tongue bifurcation has been established as not affecting intelligibility (Bressmann, 2004), so this study looks at phonetic differences only.

We will be presenting our research at the 18th International Congress on Phonetic Sciences (ICPhS 2015) in Glasgow this August in one of the clinical phonetics panels.

This research stems from an interest in how bodily ownership, autonomy and agency can be asserted and expressed by modifying and altering the appearance of the body. Cosmetic tongue bifurcation research fits into a broader research interest in how any body modification or cosmetic procedures change the way we communicate, or aspects of communication (such as measurable changes in acoustic data), what those changes are, and how they can be measured and reported.

We designed the study to look at intervocalic fricatives to see if there were differences in the centres of gravity in the bifurcant versus control speech. We also listened to the fricatives and rated them as atypical versus typical. Both groups have instances of atypical fricatives (see waveform and spectrogram, which includes bifurcant and control speech: the middle [fricative consonant] portion of the waveform between the beginning and end vocalic [vowel] portions of the waveform is under qualitative [marked as typical/atypical for each participant in the study] and quantitative analysis [the centre of gravity measured and the SD given]), and our analysis will see if the differences between these groups are significant.


Top: An example of an atypical or "messy" theta in "author" Bottom: An example of a typical or "clean" theta in "author"

Top: An example of an atypical or “messy” theta in “author”
Bottom: An example of a typical or “clean” theta in “author”

Waveform and Spectrogram image of speech sound in Praat speech analysis program.

Top: An example of an atypical or “messy” theta in “otho”
Bottom: An example of a typical or “clean” theta in “otho”

So far 12 bifurcants (folks with bifurcated tongues) have reported for the study, demonstrating that this modification is not uncommon.

Given preliminary results, cosmetic bifurcation appears to cause a small change in some speech sounds, like the “th” sounds in “author” and “other”. These changes are minor, but noticeable, and vary from one bifurcant to the next. Individual differences like length of time since bifurcation, pre- and post-bifurcation tongue motility and tip control, anatomical differences in tongue length and musculature all contribute to how bifurcation may affect an individual’s speech sounds. Interestingly, most of the bifurcants who reported for the study demonstrated independent control of each of their tongue tips.

When an OpticalFlow analysis was carried out on a sample of sagittal ultrasound footage we found no difference in the magnitude of movement in bifurcants versus controls. Click here for the poster PDF: NWLCPoster.


This research was made possible by the UBC Faculty of Arts Work Learn Program and through an NSERC USRA grant to Alyson Budd.

Further reading:

Aga, F., & Harris, R. (2013). Cosmetic tongue split. British dental journal 214(6), 275-275.

Arshad, A. R. (1995). Incomplete midline cleft of lower lip. The Cleft palate-craniofacial journal, 32(2), 167-169.

Atkinson, M. (2003). Tattooed: The sociogenesis of a body art. University of Toronto Press.

Benecke, M. (1999). First report of nonpsychotic self-cannibalism (autophagy), tongue splitting, and scar patterns (scarification) as an extreme form of cultural body modification in a western civilization. The American journal of forensic medicine and pathology,20(3), 281-285.

Boersma, P. & Weenink, D. (2014). Praat: doing phonetics by computer [Computer program]. Version 5.4.04, URL

Bressmann, T. (2004). Self-inflicted cosmetic tongue split: a case report. Journal-Canadian Dental Association, 70(3), 156-157.

Favazza, A. R. (1996). Bodies under siege: Self-mutilation and body modification in culture and psychiatry. JHU Press.

Fleming, P. S., & Flood, T. R. (2005). Bifid tongue—a complication of tongue piercing. British dental journal, 198(5), 265-266.

Fujita, S. (1991). Midline laser glossectomy with linguoplasty: A treatment of obstructive sleep apnea syndrome. Operative Techniques in Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, 2(2), 127-131.

Gick, B., Bird, S., & Wilson, I. (2005). Techniques for field application of lingual ultrasound imaging. Clinical Linguistics and Phonetics 19(6/7), 503-514.

Gorlin, R. J., & Psaume, J. (1962). Orodigitofacial dysostosis—a new syndrome: A study of 22 cases. The Journal of pediatrics, 61(4), 520-530.

Miyamoto, Y., Nagayama, M., & Hayashi, Y. (1991). A cleft palate child with lobulated tongue and lingual hamartoma: report of a case. Journal of oral and maxillofacial surgery, 49(6), 644-646.

Pitts, V. (2003). In the flesh: The cultural politics of body modification. Palgrave Macmillan.

Stauffer, J. L., & Petty, T. L. (1978). Cleft tongue and ulceration of hard palate: complications of oral intubation. CHEST Journal, 74(3), 317-318.

R Core Team (2013). R: A language and environment for statistical computing. R Foundation for Statistical Computing, Vienna, Austria. URL

Twisleton, E. T. B. (1873). The Tongue Not Essential to Speech: With Illustrations of the Power of Speech in the African Confessors. J. Murray.

Thank you to all who have contributed to this project with scripts, programming, speech segmentation, feedback and advice:

NSERC USRA grant, UBC Faculty of Arts Work Study program

Praat scripts adapted from Mieta Lennes

Joseph Stemberger for feedback and advice

Kathleen Currie Hall for programming and scripting assistance in Praat, R Statistics Package, and OpticalFlow Analysis

Scripting & help: Jonathan de Vries and Avery Ozburn

Jen Abel for help, feedback and advice

Noriko Yamane for Ultrasound training and assistance

Segmentation assistance: Tanya Tam and Nicole Anger

Running pilot: Wini Murphey and Grace Wei

All the ISRL labmates that helped and participated!

Recruiting bifurcants: Russ Foxx, professional body modification artist