How Tongue Splitting Works


Sure, you can roll your tongue, but can you do that?
Sure, you can roll your tongue, but can you do that?
© Reuters/Corbis

In 1997, 20-year-old Dustin Allor appeared in issue 16 of the indie magazine Body Play. The magazine had long been known for bringing tattoo and piercing aficionados the cutting edge in new trends, designs and techniques, but this article featured something no one had really seen before. Allor was sporting a split tongue, a procedure she had performed on herself about a year earlier. Though she wasn't the first person to split her tongue, her appearance in Body Play is widely credited with kicking off the tongue-splitting craze -- one of the most popular and fastest-growing body modification trends of the past 20 years [sources: Medical Bag; Pitts-Taylor].

Body modification is a catch-all term for things like tattoos, piercings and scarification, essentially any form of permanent or semipermanent alteration to your body. Tongue splitting, which is quite literally splitting your tongue down the middle lengthwise to produce two smaller, independently moving tongues, is merely one of the more recent -- and some say controversial -- subcategories of body modification.

But as controversial as tongue splitting may be, it's important to remember that for pretty much as long as we humans have been around, we've had this funny tendency to alter our bodies in one form or another. Most major cultures past and present have participated in the process in various ways -- and whatever seems "normal" to us is generally influenced by where and when we were born. For instance, different cultures throughout history (and even today) have practiced things like foot binding, lip gauging and head flattening.

The point is, whether affirming or rejecting either a dominant culture or a subculture, body modification is closely linked to processes of identity creation -- for us both as individuals and as part of larger social systems. And in some way or another, a really huge portion of the human population takes part in it, even if only in some very small way.

Cultural identification only tells part of the wild story of tongue splitting and why someone might do it. We've got a lot to get to, so let's get right down to it.

Why Tongue Splitting?

We've already touched on the cultural component of body modification, but why else might someone want a bifurcated tongue? As with all body modifications, people who've undergone the procedure cite a variety of reasons for choosing it. From thrill-seeking and self-discovery to art, politics and spirituality, to simply thinking it looks good, coming up with a reason really hasn't been a problem.

There generally aren't any physical drawbacks to a split tongue (more on that later), so that's a plus. In fact, from a functional sense, those who've had the procedure tend to speak very highly of their new dual appendage (though there is a little retraining involved). Both segments of a bifurcated tongue are able to move independently, meaning that people with a split tongue have more manual dexterity -- which is said to be quite the benefit when it comes to kissing [source: Siegel].

When it comes to procedures such as tongue splitting, many in the body modification community liken the process -- the anticipation, the actual procedure and even the pain -- to a spiritual experience. They report a sense of euphoria both during and after a tongue splitting, with others claiming that the act of tongue splitting and other body mods doesn't just alter one physically, but spiritually and emotionally as well. In fact, there's even a whole organization, the Church of Body Modification, designed specifically around the concept of body modification as a process of enlightenment [sources: CoBM; Vaughn].

Proponents of tongue splitting also argue that perceptions of appearance are relative. They point out that many other types of cosmetic body modification -- think ear piercings, breast implants, face-lifts, circumcision -- are so commonplace and socially accepted that we rarely give them a second thought. The argument goes that we are entering an age where body modification of all sorts -- cosmetic, medical, even cybernetic -- will become increasingly commonplace, leading to different and constantly changing standards of both beauty and identity [sources: Associated Press; Diaz].

They could be right, but predicting future cultural trends isn't really something we're going to attempt here. Instead, let's look to the past to understand how tongue splitting got to this point in modern life.

From the Devil to the Lizardman: A Brief History of Tongue Splitting

Erik Sprague (aka "The Lizardman") shows off some of his body modifications (split tongue, subdermal implants and sharpened teeth among others) at the Copenhagen Ink Festival in 2011.
Erik Sprague (aka "The Lizardman") shows off some of his body modifications (split tongue, subdermal implants and sharpened teeth among others) at the Copenhagen Ink Festival in 2011.
© Gonzales Photo/Demotix/Corbis

Is tongue splitting some flavor-of-the-month extreme fashion style designed to make parents the world over weep in shame? Or is this particular form of body modification as old as the forests themselves, as natural to human culture as farming and backgammon? From what we could gather, the history of tongue splitting is a little bit of both, though hopefully without the weeping parents (be nice to your elders, kids!).

First off, the image of a human, humanoid or creature with a forked tongue does indeed date back to early mythology. Whether supernatural beings or some gnarly human-lizard hybrid, creatures portrayed with forked tongues have generally been associated with evil -- or at least kind of shady -- character traits. A prime example would be Judeo-Christian depictions of Satan, who is often described as having a forked tongue. Why the negative portrayal? Perhaps because of their association to lizards and reptiles and our natural fear of such "monsters," but really that's just speculation [source: Pitts-Taylor].

The most concrete records we have of split tongues in history are accounts of yogis practicing Khechari Mudra, who would halve their tongues for meditation purposes. Once their tongues were split, the yogis would stretch -- or "milk" -- the two ends until they were long enough to curl back in the mouth and close the nasal passage. Doing so was said to harness energy and bring about a particularly pleasant state of euphoria and sense of physical disembodiment. But despite some written accounts, there isn't a tremendous amount of evidence for this practice [sources: Nayaswami; Singh; Pitts-Taylor].

We don't really get to the provable stuff until the mid-'90s, when a small handful of body modifiers decided to try something a little new. The first documented procedure was performed in Italy around 1994, but it wasn't until two body modification luminaries -- Dustin Allor and Erik Sprague (aka "The Lizardman") -- had the procedure done a few years later that tongue splitting began to attract attention. Then, right around the turn of the 21st century, the trend took off in earnest and has become increasingly common [sources: Sprague; Medical Bag; Vaughn].

So now that we know a little about the history, here's the question: Who's performing the procedures -- and what does the law have to say about all this?

Tongue Splitting, Practitioners, Controversies and the Law

A man performs a tongue-splitting procedure on a 25-year-old tattoo artist in New York in 2003 – before it became regulated in 2004.
A man performs a tongue-splitting procedure on a 25-year-old tattoo artist in New York in 2003 – before it became regulated in 2004.
© Reuters/Corbis

So if you do want to have your tongue split, who's going to do it? You? It's been done, but it's generally not recommended. A professional at a tattoo or body piercing shop? Yes, that could work (depending on where you live), but you'd do yourself a solid by making sure the professional is experienced, understands the procedure and works in a clean shop. A surgeon or other medical professional? It's probably your best bet -- both for legal and safety reasons.

The question of who is going to help you split your tongue is determined in part by where you live. It differs from U.S. state to state. For example, Michigan has tried banning the procedure but without success [sources: Medical Bag; Associated Press; Jurden]. Also, many branches of the U.S. military expressly forbid it and will make you get a reversal if you enlist with a forked tongue.

If you're under 18 in any U.S. state, you won't be allowed to have your tongue split without parental consent -- and even then things get kinda murky. Although tongue splitting falls under the broader category of body modification, because of its nature, it's generally considered a medical procedure. And because of this, there's some debate as to whether laws governing tattoos and piercings correctly apply, which is why states like Oregon only allow the procedure to be performed by a licensed medical practitioner [sources: LeTrent; Medical Bag; Siegel].

This gray area appears to be the international norm, and as a result laws governing the practice can be hard to find. Tongue splitting is accepted enough in England for professionals to advertise the procedure, and the Australian state of Victoria has banned the practice among minors [sources: Holier; Macreadie]. But here's the bottom line: If you're not sure of the legality of tongue splitting wherever you live, find out. Your best resources are likely your local medical practitioners or body modification specialists. If no one nearby is willing to offer the service, they're probably being mindful of either prohibitive or extra murky laws and don't feel that it's a legal risk worth taking.

So, with the legal question come social and ethical ones as well. Opponents of tongue splitting consider it self-mutilation; therefore, medical practitioners should not be allowed to perform the procedure. However, others stress that body modification is not in itself a sign of mental illness or a desire to self-harm. They argue that the real ethical question isn't whether people should be allowed to alter their bodies (after all, this is the age of implants, liposuction and Botox), but whether they have a safe, sterile environment in which they can do so. To the joy of tongue splitting advocates, this "who are we to judge?" there are enough practitioners across the county who are more than willing to make your dreams come true for a nominal (yikes!) fee in the range of $1,000–$2,500 [sources: Vaughn; Loftus].

Aside from legal and ethical questions, there are personal considerations as well -- which we're only so happy to cover in the next section.

Things to Consider Before Splitting Your Tongue

So if you're going to split your tongue, be responsible about it. Learn how it's done, what risks it might pose and who the best person is to perform the procedure (hint: It's probably not some dude in a van who just happens to have a scalpel lying around).

Consider the long-term physical risks, which generally are said to potentially include loss of taste or sensation, infection and trouble speaking (many people with split tongues develop slight lisps). These risks are generally considered minimal, as long as you leave the job to a licensed medical professional [sources: Loftus; Webdentistry].

You also might be wondering whether having your tongue split is reversible. Even if you're totally committed right now, that whole permanence thing can be a bit overwhelming. So more good news for you: It's totally reversible. In fact, if the exposed flesh isn't closed properly after the split (either with sutures or cauterization), your tongue will just go ahead and remerge on its own [source: Loftus].

But there's a catch: The reversal process is said to be way more painful than the initial procedure. Like, way more. Why is that? Well, it really has to do with what you have to go through to put the two halves back together. Your doctor has to cut off a little bit of the inside edges of each half and then sew them back together [sources: Bonner; Loftus]. So while splitting your tongue may in fact be reversible, it's probably best if you consider it a permanent procedure.

Following that whole permanence idea, you'll want to seek out the opinions and experiences of others who've already had their tongues split. Body modders tend to be a close-knit community and are happy to tell you firsthand what it's like, where to go, how to take care of yourself afterward and whether it's something they would recommend to others.

Finally, consider your long-term personal and professional goals. The world is an increasingly accepting place when it comes to body modification, but not everyone is cool with a forked tongue just yet. The general guideline we'd give is that if splitting your tongue is going to close doors that you'd rather keep open, maybe consider a different mod.

But if after considering all that you're still raring to go, it would probably help to know how splitting your tongue works. So brace yourself: Things are about to get ugly.

Getting Your Tongue Split

Just as there are many ways to skin a cat (please don't), there are a few different ways to have your tongue split. A majority of the people actually start off with a tongue piercing. The healed hole makes an excellent starting point for the split [source: Medical Bag]. From there, we have three categories: the tie-off method, the cauterization method and the scalpel method.

One of the first documented techniques for modern tongue splitting, the tie-off method is also the most gradual. However, be warned that it's also considered the most dangerous for its increased risk of infection (the process can take several weeks), and most professionals strongly recommend against it. But basically, all that's involved is looping a strand of fishing line (or other thin, strong wire) through a pre-existing piercing and tying the ends off tightly at the tip of the tongue (where you want the split to start). After a little bit, the line will cut into the tongue from both ends, slackening as the two ends move closer together. Then, the line is removed, and the process is repeated with a new strand until a clean split is made [sources: Holier; Medical Bag].

Now the cauterization method, which is basically burning your tongue in half. Let that image sink in a sec. Because it offers the most controlled, sterile option, this is the method generally favored by medical professionals. And you'll probably be glad to know that your specialist will make your mouth good and numb with a local anesthetic before making the cut. From there, some common form of cauterization tool will be applied to your tongue -- a cautery pen, an argon laser or a heated blade, for instance. Your surgeon will move the implement from the tip back to your desired endpoint (usually about 3–5 centimeters), singing your precious little blood vessels shut along the way [source: Loftus].

Finally, the scalpel method. Seriously, it's amazing we got this far into a discussion about tongue splitting without talking about knives of any kind. But the humble scalpel technique works much in the same way as the cauterization method. Except -- quite unsurprisingly -- this will make your tongue bleed. A lot. From there, your tongue will either be sutured or cauterized to close the wounds and control bleeding. This is the technique more commonly practiced at tattoo or body modification shops, but a warning: Only medical professionals can give you anesthetics. If you go to a shop, you're going to feel the whole thing -- likely over the course of multiple sessions [source: Vaughn].

Next, with a brand-new forked tongue (and possibly a wad of gauze) tucked securely in your mouth, it's time to start the healing process.

Techniques for tongue splitting
© 2015 HowStuffWorks

Tongue Splitting Healing and Care

A 25-year-old tattoo artist shows how his split tongue has healed after he had the procedure done.
A 25-year-old tattoo artist shows how his split tongue has healed after he had the procedure done.
© Reuters/Corbis

Now we start the road to recovery. You're going to be a little uncomfortable for a while, but don't expect anyone to feel sorry for you because, you know, you kinda did it to yourself. Luckily, the tongue heals pretty fast, and as long as the procedure was done correctly and you're committed to taking care of yourself, you'll be back to your usual charming self in no time.

Everyone's pain threshold is going to be a little different, but the consensus is that you'll be in moderate pain for the first few days, which some people manage with prescription pain meds. Things will improve rapidly: You'll be feeling pretty good after a week and more or less normal after about two -- give or take a few days [source: Loftus].

When caring for your freshly bifurcated tongue, you'll be looking to (1) make sure the wounds don't reopen, (2) keep your tongue from getting infected and (3) relearn basic movements with your new dual appendage. This means that for the first few days, you'll basically be basically passing through a second infant phase -- eating mush, living in a sterile environment and speaking gibberish. Our advice? Live it up while you can. If you're gonna be out of commission a few days, treat yourself with a couple of your favorite movies.

The first two or three days you're going to want to stick to only soft foods -- and maybe even a liquid diet. Think soups, milkshakes and the like. To keep things good and sanitary, consider a nice saltwater rinse. It's a natural disinfectant, and it can even help reduce swelling [source: Kerr]. And speaking of speaking, it's probably a good idea to carry a pad and pen around at first. Your split tongue eventually will be surprisingly maneuverable, but only after you've learned how to use it. Allow for about two or three weeks to be fully comfortable speaking again, but be warned that you could develop a (usually slight) lisp. Also, if anything seems off -- numbness, swelling, discoloration -- consult your doctor immediately [sources: Bonner; Loftus].

But otherwise, that's about all you need to worry about as far as healing and care. So while the social considerations of splitting your tongue are many and nuanced, the actual procedure and recovery are fairly simple -- provided they're undertaken responsibly, of course. Just remember to consider all your options, be honest with your desires and consult the opinions of others for a better perspective. And above everything else, be safe.

Author's Note: How Tongue Splitting Works

I wouldn't go so far as to say I'm squeamish, but it took me over 30 years to get my first tattoo. And thanks to my many years working as a restaurant cook, I've had more than my fair share of deep cuts and burns. The idea of doing that to myself on purpose? Yeah, not so much. The only voluntary medical procedure I'm ever likely to undertake with any enthusiasm is installing cybernetic robot arms. What? A guy can dream.

Related Articles

Sources

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