Bell in the back of throat

Originally Published: April 21, 2006
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Alice,

I wanted to know what the bell behind our throat is for does it have a purpose. Do we need it?

Dear Reader,

The "bell" hanging above the entrance to your throat is known as the uvula.  Due to its shape, the uvula's name comes from the Latin uva, meaning grape.  Some scientists believe that this fleshy growth plays a role in the the production of both saliva and certain antibodies protecting the throat from infection.  Others believe that the uvula also blocks off the airway to the nose when you swallow, ensuring that food and drink go down the correct tube.

Because humans are the only mammals with a uvula, some theorize that it is primarily utilized for speech and can aid in making some of the sounds used in many of the world's oldest languages. Certain gutteral consonants in languages including Arabic, French, German, Hebrew, and several Sub-Saharan African languages can only be correctly produced with the help of the uvula. 

Elongated or larger uvulas can lead to loud snoring and sleep apnea.  To correct these sleep-related ailments, surgeons sometimes perform a uvulectomy, which partially or wholly removes this grape-looking structure.  Possible negative side effects of this surgery include persistent dry-mouth and altered speech; these side effects tend to be more severe when the whole uvula is removed.      

Basically, right now there are no hard answers to your questions.  Although scientists and researchers currently think that the uvula may play important roles in saliva production and speech, there is a lack of consensus on its function or necessity in these and other areas.

Alice