Experience this story and others in HIGHArt, a print magazine by Highsnobiety, available from retailers around the world and our online store.

To coincide with our sandals made in collaboration with iconic label Havaianas – due to drop (but not flop) at this year’s Art Basel Miami Beach – Berlin-based artist-educators SLAVS AND TATARS offer us a guide to the inner workings of the mouth as expressed in Arabic, Hebrew, Russian, and other languages that emerged in eastern Europe and Asia. The sandals allow Highsnobiety to dip our toes into the duo’s project “Mother Tongues and Father Throats,” a decade-long investigation into the mysteries of language, where every mouth part represents a secret history just waiting to roll out.

SLAVS AND TATARS: Of all the organs that go into making the sounds we call speech, the tongue is the lead singer, the figurehead, the one who gets all the attention. It signs the autographs, does the press junket, and even appears on record sleeves and concert t-shirts. Groupies don’t wait patiently outside in the cold for the nose, ears, lips, teeth, or throat, but for a mere glimpse of the star: the tongue.

Far from its abstracted caricature, though (think John Pasche’s logo for The Rolling Stones or Miley Cyrus’s unfortunate attempts to imitate Albert Einstein), the tongue is a fleshy, muscular hydrostat with fungiform papillae and mucous membranes. Try saying that over and over as fast as you can.

The tongue is through and through a sexual organ. In fact, all the body parts used for language – the lips, neck/throat, nose, teeth, ears, you name it, they are all erogenous, sensuous, throbbing organs capable of receiving or giving pleasure. In order to escape the cold, clinical approach to linguistics and the hard hangover of language politics, Slavs and Tatars have decided to seek warmth and refuge in the darker, carnal corners of language: more sybaritic than semantic.

[1]

These three letters are the Hebrew, Cyrllic, and Arabic equivalent of the sound: [kh]. Unlike most other phonemes, it’s pronounced not by pushing air through your vocal chords but rather by constricting the passage of air. And in each of these alphabets, the letter for [kh] seems to have a sacred meaning – suggesting shelter, hospitality, or generosity.

[2]

If [kh] narrows the passage of air, creating a turbulence in the throat, these three letters close down the passage entirely, requiring a full glottal stop. In the case of [kh] this friction is called a fricative, and the consonantal constipation, if you will, a plosive, as if the even the “ex-” couldn’t squeeze through. While [kh] makes the rounds worthy of a celebrity consonant, [q] is the massive, wide-shouldered bouncer cutting off access to it. Trickier to grasp than our star phoneme, [q] is even more difficult to pronounce, for your average gringo, than [kh]. Like any good security service, it is omnipresent and yet self-effacing, deflecting any attention to itself onto others. In many transliterations to the Latin alphabet, for example, the lack of a phonetic equivalent means qaf (ق) in Arabic or qoph [ק] in Hebrew are lazily transcribed with a k to kaf or kof.

[3]

These are the letters for V, B, and M in Arabic. What they all have in common are the lips: without moving them, it’s not possible to pronounce these letters. Which is why ventriloquists do their best to avoid words starting with these letters (not moving your lips being the minimum qualification for entry level ventriloquism, of course.) If you pay close attention, ventriloquists will often say “tower” instead of “power”: pronouncing T doesn’t require moving one’s lips and, given context, the audience will hear “power” all the same.

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