The riddle of the uvula

Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 1992 Sep;107(3):444-50. doi: 10.1177/019459989210700318.


Since ancient times, the uvula has been a subject of interesting and contradictory observations. On the one hand, it was regarded as having a functional role in speech and in immunology, but on the other hand it was regarded as a potentially hazardous organ, possibly responsible for sudden infant death syndrome. None of these hypotheses, however, has been proved. In a previous study on patients undergoing uvulopalatopharyngoplasty, we suggested that the most important function of the uvula is connected with the muscularis uvula. Its function could be related to drinking while bending over. This previous assumption was that the uvula is a phylogenetic remnant from mammals that drink while bending their neck downward. In the present study, the soft palate of eight different mammals was macroscopically and microscopically studied and compared. Of all animals in the study, a small underdeveloped uvula was found only in two baboons. We found that the human uvula consists of an intermix of serous and seromucous glandular masses, muscular tissue, and large excretory canals. The serous and seromucous glands are absent in the other mammals. Thus, the uvula is a highly sophisticated structure, capable of producing a large quantity of fluid saliva that can be excreted in a short time. Both uvula and speech serve to differentiate human beings from animals. Our conclusion is that the uvula is possibly an accessory organ of speech, and may be another marker of human evolution that differentiates man from other mammals.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cats
  • Cattle
  • Dogs
  • Exocrine Glands / anatomy & histology
  • Horses
  • Humans
  • Macaca mulatta
  • Mammals / anatomy & histology*
  • Mucus
  • Palatal Muscles / anatomy & histology
  • Palate, Soft / anatomy & histology
  • Pan troglodytes
  • Papio
  • Salivary Glands, Minor / anatomy & histology
  • Serous Membrane / anatomy & histology
  • Sheep
  • Swine
  • Uvula / anatomy & histology*