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The Roof of Your Mouth: What's Up There

03/03/2011 07:52 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The roof of your mouth -- what's up there?

As you know, in this blog, I talk about all things oral -- over time, we've talked about teeth, gums, cheek biting, lips, the tongue, etc.. But I've neglected one important area, and it's an area that's pretty easy to overlook, because it doesn't jump out and bite you (pardon the pun).

I'm talking about the roof of your mouth.

Generally, since it's kind of "out of sight", the roof of your mouth doesn't get too much attention. Oh, when we eat some pizza that's too hot and the cheese burns the roof of your mouth you take notice (for sure!), but other than that, it's just not something we think about too much. But like other parts of your mouth, the roof of your mouth has a function, so let's go ahead and take a look at this area.

To begin, we'll start by calling it its proper name: the Palate. Bet some of you didn't know that. Actually, to take it a step further, we have the hard palate (essentially the front) and the soft palate (the back). The hard palate is made of bone, the soft palate of tissue. Go ahead and run your tongue along the hard palate (right behind your teeth). Feel that ridge? That's the bone of the hard palate that separates your mouth from your nasal cavities. That's also the part that always gets burned by the pizza, too.

Feel that little ridge/gap in the middle of the hard palate? That's where the right and left sides of the palate fused together when you were an infant. Sometimes, it doesn't fully fuse together, which is called a cleft palate. If it's small, it's of little to no consequence, but if the "cleft palate" is larger, it could lead to speech impediments/trouble swallowing, etc.. (We'll do a separate, more in-depth post on cleft palates -- and cleft lips -- sometime in the future, as it's too large a topic to give justice to here. But I did want to at least briefly mention it.)

If you go "down the slope" further back in your hard palate, you'll feel the "hard" surface start to go soft (right about the area where your tongue's tip can reach). That's where your soft palate starts -- no bone there. The soft palate is largely responsible for closing off the nasal passages during swallowing, and it also can close off the airway when needed. This is where your uvula hangs, too (again, we can do an entire post on this little guy -- or girl, if you prefer, so we won't go further than pointing it out here.)

All right, now we know what it's called, and the general areas involved, so let's find out what's up there, and what the palate is essentially used for.

Well, like the rest of your mouth's interior, there are a myriad of taste buds and minor salivary glands in the soft palate. In fact, in terms of taste, it would appear that the roof of the mouth was considered a major factor in taste (we now know the tongue is the big kahuna in this respect, but the soft palate does have quite a few taste buds, and, because it's separate from the tongue, "soft palate taste" tends to stand out). This is likely the reason why we use the word "palate" when describing something good to eat or drink ("it pleases the palate" "it's very palatable"). I'm guessing "it's pleasing to the roof of your mouth" doesn't have quite the same ring.

Ok, so we have taste buds, and we have minor salivary glands -- nothing all that earth shaking, right? I'm afraid that's probably accurate. In fact, probably the most interesting aspect of the hard palate (in a blog discussion sense) is that peanut butter tends to stick to it (this is because of the high protein content draws moisture away, and combined with the consistency of peanut butter in general, causes it to stick). But what's even more interesting is there's actually a phobia associated with this: Arachibutyrophobia is defined as the fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of your mouth (I'm not kidding). And of course, there are the pizza burns I mentioned earlier -- ok, why pizza? Because the cheese is hot, the bottom crust is much cooler, and we don't realize the top cheese is too hot until it's too late. Ouch.

The last thing I am going to mention about the palate (both hard and soft) is their importance in regards to speech. The soft palate and uvula are important aspects of the sounds we make, but the most interesting part is the tongue and the hard palate, which is an essential combination in regards to certain sounds (primarily T, D, and J.) Go ahead, try and make a "T" sound without touching your hard palate with your tongue -- you can't do it (now I have you all making T sounds and saying "that's cool" -- don't worry, I did it too).

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this little trip we took on the roof of your mouth, and maybe came away knowing something you didn't previously know (even the phobia, which is very real -- anyone who has it, please comment and tell us about it.)

Until next time, keep smiling.