Speaking in Tongues

Agnes Ozman

Speaking in tongues, also known as glossolalia, is a practice in which people utter words or speech-like sounds that some believe to be languages unknown to the speaker.

One definition used by linguists is the fluid vocalizing of speech-like syllables that lack any readily comprehended meaning, in some cases as part of religious practice in which some believe it to be a divine language unknown to the speaker. Glossolalia is practiced in Pentecostal and charismatic Christianity as well as in other religions.

Sometimes a distinction is made between glossolalia and ‘xenolalia’ or ‘xenoglossy,’ which specifically relates to claims that the language being spoken is a natural language previously unknown to the speaker. The exact phrase ‘speaking in tongues’ has been used at least since the translation of the New Testament into Middle English in the Wycliffe Bible in the 14th century. Frederic Farrar, cleric of the Church of England, first used the word glossolalia in 1879.

In 1972, William J. Samarin, a linguist from the University of Toronto, published a thorough assessment of Pentecostal glossolalia that became a classic work on its linguistic characteristics. His assessment was based on a large sample of glossolalia recorded in public and private Christian meetings in Italy, the Netherlands, Jamaica, Canada, and the United States over the course of five years; his wide range of subjects included the Puerto Ricans of the Bronx, the snake handlers of the Appalachians and the spiritual Christians from Russia in Los Angeles.

Samarin found that glossolalic speech does resemble human language in some respects. The speaker uses accent, rhythm, 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 found in a language known to the speaker:

‘It is verbal behavior that consists of using a certain number of consonants and vowels … in a limited number of syllables that in turn are organized into larger units that are taken apart and rearranged pseudogrammatically … with variations in pitch, volume, speed and intensity. [Glossolalia] consists of strings of syllables, made up of sounds taken from all those that the speaker knows, put together more or less haphazardly but emerging nevertheless as word-like and sentence-like units because of realistic, language-like rhythm and melody.’

Samarin found that the resemblance to human language was merely on the surface and so concluded that glossolalia is ‘only a facade of language.’ He reached this conclusion because the syllable string did not form words, the stream of speech was not internally organized, and – most importantly of all – there was no systematic relationship between units of speech and concepts. Humans use language to communicate but glossolalia does not. Therefore, he concluded that glossolalia is not ‘a specimen of human language because it is neither internally organized nor systematically related to the world man perceives.’

On the basis of his linguistic analysis, Samarin defined Pentecostal glossolalia as ‘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.’

It was a commonplace idea within the Greco-Roman world that divine beings spoke languages different from human languages, and historians of religion have identified references to esoteric speech in Greco-Roman literature that resemble glossolalia, sometimes explained as angelic or divine language. An example is the account in the ‘Testament of Job,’ a non-canonical elaboration of the ‘Book of Job,’ where the daughters of Job are described as being given sashes enabling them to speak and sing in angelic languages.

According to Dale B. Martin, glossolalia accorded high status in the ancient world due to its association with the divine. Greek mystic and oracle Alexander of Abonoteichus may have exhibited glossolalia during his episodes of prophetic ecstasy. Neoplatonist philosopher Iamblichus linked glossolalia to prophecy, writing that prophecy was divine spirit possession that ’emits words which are not understood by those that utter them; for they pronounce them, as it is said, with an insane mouth (mainomenό stomati) and are wholly subservient, and entirely yield themselves to the energy of the predominating God.’

During the 20th century, glossolalia primarily became associated with Pentecostalism and the later charismatic movement. The holiness preachers Charles Parham and William Seymour are credited as co-founders of the movement. Parham and Seymour taught that ‘baptism of the Holy Spirit was not the blessing of sanctification but rather a third work of grace that was accompanied by the experience of tongues.’

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