This paper presents a three-dimensional finite element model of the tongue and surrounding soft tissues with potential application to the study of sleep apnoea and of linguistics and speech therapy. The anatomical data was obtained from the Visible Human Project, and the underlying histological data was also extracted and incorporated into the model. Hyperelastic constitutive models were used to describe the material behaviour, and material incompressibility was accounted for. An active Hill three-element muscle model was used to represent the muscular tissue of the tongue. The neural stimulus for each muscle group was determined through the use of a genetic algorithm-based neural control model. The fundamental behaviour of the tongue under gravitational and breathing-induced loading is investigated. It is demonstrated that, when a time-dependent loading is applied to the tongue, the neural model is able to control the position of the tongue and produce a physiologically realistic response for the genioglossus. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.