This brief paper will examine the act/behaviour of speaking in tongues while also considering expert voices from a number of linguists.
1. What is Speaking in Tongues?
Though commonly referred to “speaking in tongues,” linguists prefer to identify the phenomenon as glossolalia (glossa = tongue, lalia = speaking). For the speaker (glossolalic), glossolalia is believed to be an unknown divine language of which the person appears to speak (1). It is often claimed to be a supernatural phenomenon though a true definition of glossolalia can be a bit murky (2). For instance, the New Catholic Encyclopedia (1967) says that it is “a charisma that enables the recipient to praise God in miraculous speech” whereas the New Encyclopedia Britannica (1990) calls it “a neurotic or psychotic symptom.” Sometimes it is refers to as “gibberish,” “tongue jabbering”, and “unintelligible words.” Further complexity pertaining to definition arises when one discovers glossolalia is a phenomenon spread across a number of religions.
2. The Biblical Basis of Glossolalia.
Though Christians often disagreed with each other on the biblical basis for speaking in tongues there are five places in the New Testament where it is referred to explicitly.
It can be found in our earliest gospel, Mark 16:17. In Mark’s gospel we read Jesus’ instructions to the apostles. Jesus told them that “they will speak with new tongues” as a sign that they would follow and believe in him. Further, the book of Acts also instances early Christians speaking in tongues. In Acts 2, for example, there is an occurrence of speaking in tongues in Jerusalem at Pentecost which was accompanied by “a mighty rushing wind.” The apostles, having been “filled with the Holy Spirit,” “began to speak in other languages” to the amazement of each person in attendance who “heard their own language being spoken.” A little later in Acts 10:46 the household of Cornelius in Caesarea spoke in tongues, and those present compared it to the speaking in tongues that occurred at Pentecost. This was believed to be evidence that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even onto the Gentiles. In Acts 19:6 roughly a dozen men spoke in tongues in Ephesus as they received the Holy Spirit while the apostle Paul laid his hands upon them. Our earliest Christian writer, the apostle Paul also mentions speaking in tongues in his letters. In 1 Corinthians 12, 13, and 14 Paul discusses speaking in “various kinds of tongues” as part of his wider discussion of the gifts of the Spirit.
It is worth noting that in the Bible there are two kinds of tongues reported (3). This included the gift of diverse kinds of tongues (speaking in human languages) and the gift of speaking in an unknown tongue (a heavenly language). The former is known as is xenoglossia (xenos = foreign, glossa = tongue). Xenoglossia is the use of an actual foreign language by a person who has had no conscious knowledge of that language. A good example of this is St. Pachomius, the Egyptian founder of the first Christian monastery, who was alleged to be able to speak in Greek and Latin even though he had never learned either language. The latter type, however, is what linguists refer to as glossolalia.
3. Many Believe in its Authenticity Through Experience
Many glossolalics (that’s what they are referred to) claim that their experiences are genuine. Linguist Felicitas Goodman’s research found a “before and after” phase in the lives of the tongue-speakers, with a clear, decisive “change” in-between which suggested that the experience of speaking in tongues had transformative power (4). In 1975, Kildahl found that Christian glossolalics reported positive, and negative consequences, following their experiences of speaking in tongues (5). Some of these transformative changes were an increase in personal happiness, a sense of greater personal power, a joyful and warm personal fellowship among tongue-speakers, dependency on the leader who introduced the person to tongue-speaking, and divisiveness that polarizes the religious community. Glossolalia can be quite dramatic at times. For example, there are occasions when glossolalics go into convulsions or lose consciousness. Some seem to go into a trance, or become involved in “holy laughter.” The latter being the act of laughing uncontrollably, falling down on the ground, rolling around, and so on (often referred to being “slain in the spirit”) (6).
4. Glossolalia is Widespread
Though glossolalia is common within the Christian Pentecostal movement, other religions share similar stories, experiences, and beliefs. Though there are cases of people in certain parts of the world speaking in apparently unintelligible fashion (7), glossolalia is commonly found in Shamanism and Paganism, and has traces in Japan (8). Vodouists in Haiti have also been said to speak in tongues. According to Christian writer and pastor Wayne Wells “The ecstatic utterances of modern day tongue-speakers are regularly manifested among Buddhists, Hindus, Mormons, Moslems, Shintoists, Spirits, and voodoo devotees. Tongue-speaking has also been reported by those under the influence of LSD. The Pentecostal experience is not unique” (9).
Evidence seems to support this. L. Carlyle May of Harvard University, in his 1956 work “A Survey of Glossolalia and Related Phenomena in Non-Christian Religions,” describes the prevalence of tongue-speaking on the part of the Hindus in India (10). Further, in his ethnological study, anthropologist G.J. Jennings observed glossolalia among Tibetan monks, the Haida Indians of the Pacific Northwest, certain North American Indians, the Aborigines of Australia, the aboriginal peoples of the subarctic regions of North America and Asia, the Curanderos of the Andes, the Dyaks of Borneo, the Chaco Indians of South America, shamans in the Sudan, Siberia and Greenland, and in various cults (Voodoo in Haiti, Zor in Ethiopia, Shango on the west coast of Africa, and the Shago in Trinidad) (11). Therefore, as Russell P. Spittler, senior professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary, concludes, glossolalia is “not limited to Christianity nor even to religious behavior” (12)
5. Glossolalia & Mental Illness.
Though glossolalics have been labeled schizophrenic, neurotic, emotionally unstable, dogmatic, among other terms (13), they seldom actually suffer from mental problems (14). According to anthropologist Virginia Wine that theory has jumped ship, “Quite clearly, available evidence requires that an explanation of glossolalia as pathological be discarded” (15). In support, a 2003 study by Francis and Robbins of close to 1000 evangelical Christians in England found that those who engaged in the practice were more emotionally stable than those who did not, thus challenging the view of those who believe glossolalics suffer from mental illnesses (16).
6. Linguist William Samarin
In the early 1970s the linguist William J. Samarin from the University of Toronto published a detailed assessment of Pentecostal glossolalia. His work proved hugely influential and became a classic work on linguistic characteristics (17). Samarin included a large sample of glossolalia, and over a span of five years he recorded instances of it in both public and private Christian meetings in a number of countries. The subjects came from a number of cultural backgrounds including those found in Italy, Netherlands, Jamaica, Canada and the US. He also included groups known as the Snake Handlers, the Puerto Ricans of the Bronx, the Appalachians, and the Spiritual Christians from Russia in Los Angeles.
Having sifted through his data, Samarin found that glossolalic speech resembled human language in some ways. For example, the speaker uses rhythm, accent, intonation, and pauses to break up the speech into distinct units. Each unit is itself made up of syllables, the syllables being formed from consonants and vowels taken from a language known to the speaker (18). Many of the sounds on the part of the speaker were taken from what he or she already knows. The sounds are then put together and subsequently emerge as word-like and sentence-like units (19). Samarin suggested that glossolalia is “only a facade of language,” and not “a specimen of human language because it is neither internally organized nor systematically related to the world man perceives” (20). His conclusion was that speaking in tongues is a “meaningless but phonologically structured human utterance, believed by the speaker to be a real language but bearing no systematic resemblance to any natural language, living or dead” (21).
7. Linguist Felicitas Goodman
In her study, linguist and anthropologist Felicitas Goodman found that the speech of glossolalics reflected the patterns of speech of the speaker’s native language (22) Goodman examined a number of Pentecostal communities in America, Mexico, and the Caribbean which included English, Spanish, and Mayan-speaking groups. She compared what she found with recordings of non-Christian rituals from Africa, Borneo, Indonesia and Japan. She took into account both the segmental structure (such as sounds, syllables, phrases) and the supra-segmental elements (rhythm, accent, intonation). She published her research in 1972 and concluded that there was no distinction between what was practiced by the Pentecostal Protestants and the followers of other religions (23).
8. Glossolalia as Learned Behaviour
Linguistic data suggests that glossolalia can be a learned behaviour. An experiment conducted by Spanos had participants listen to a recorded sample of genuine glossolalia. After listening to the recording 20% of his subjects were able to speak in tongues immediately without further training. Further, after some coaching, 70% of the trained subjects were fluent in glossolalia. The conclusion to the study was that “Glossolalia, therefore, seems likely to be a type of learned behavior rather than a special altered state of mind” (24).
Kildahl came to a similar conclusion saying that “the evidence is strong that one may learn to speak in tongues under certain prescribed conditions… My glossolalia research has convinced me that it is a learned behaviour which can bring a sense of power and well-being. It may also lead to excesses resulting in community disruption. It is the use of glossolalia which determines whether or not it is constructive.” According to Goodman glossolalia “is, actually, a learned behavior, learned either unawarely or, sometimes consciously. Others have previously pointed out that direct instruction is given on how to “speak in tongues,” ie. how to engage in glossolalia… association between trance and glossolalia is now accepted by many researchers as a correct assumption” (25).
The studies conclude that though not dismissing the supernatural claims surrounding glossolalia, it is quite possible that it be acquired by almost anyone who possesses the motivation to learn it. This learning process can be more effective if the person is exposed regularly to social environments that encourage the behaviour.
1. Colman, A. 2001. “Glossolalia,” in A Dictionary of Psychology.
2. Slotegraaf, Auke. 2005. The psychology of speaking in tongues: A review. Available.
3. Slotegraaf, Auke. 2005. Ibid.
4. Goodman, F. 1972. Speaking In Tongues: A Cross-Cultural Study of Glossolalia.
5. Kildahl, J. 1975. “Psychological Observations,” in the Charismatic Movement. p. 124-142.
6. Meta Religion. Glossolalia in Contemporary Linguistic Study. Available.
7. May, C. 1956. A Survey of Glossolalia and Related Phenomena in Non-Christian Religions. p. 86.
8. May, C. 1956. Ibid. p. 75.
9. Wells, W. Tongue Speaking. Available.
10. May, C. 1956. Ibid. p. 58, 75-96.
11. Jennings, G. 1968. “An Ethnological Study of Glossolalia. Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation,” quoted in the Bible Students Congregation of New Brunswick (2000).
12. Spittler, R. In the “Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements” (1988). p. 340.
13. Spanos, N. & Hewitt, E. 1979. “Glossolalia: A Test of the ‘Trance’ And Psychopathology Hypotheses,” in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 88(4): 427-434.
14. Carey, B. 2006. A Neuroscientific Look at Speaking in Tongues. Available.
15. Hine, V. 1969. “Pentacostal Glossolalia,” in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 8: 212-226.
16. Francis, L. & Robbins M. 2003. “Personality and Glossolalia: A study among male evangelical clergy,” in Pastoral psychology, 51(5): 391–396.
17. Samarin, W. 1972. Tongues of Men and Angels: The Religious Language of Pentecostalism.
18. Samarin, W. 1972. Tongues. p. 120.
19. Samarin, W. 1972. “Sociolinguistic vs. Neurophysiological Explanations for Glossolalia: Comment on Goodman’s Paper,” in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 11(3): 293–96
20. Samarin, W. 1972. Tongues. p. 128.
21. Samarin, W. 1972. Tongues. p. 2.
22. Goodman, F. 1969. “Phonetic Analysis of Glossolalia in Four Cultural Settings,” in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 8(2): 227–35.
23. Goodman, F. 1972. Speaking in Tongues: A Cross-Cultural Study in Glossolalia. p. xxi.
24. Spanos, N. 1986. “Glossolalia As Learned Behavior: An Experimental Demonstration,” in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 95(21).
25. Meta Religion. Ibid.