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GLOSSOLALIA (from the Greek glōssa, "tongue, language," and lalein, "to talk") is a nonordinary speech behavior that is institutionalized as a religious ritual in numerous Western and non-Western religious communities. Its worldwide distribution attests to its antiquity, as does its mention in ancient documents. It is alluded to in the Hebrew scriptures and in the New Testament, as in the well-known narration in the Acts of the Apostles about events on the Day of the Pentecost. There are references to it in the Vedas (c. 1000 bce), in Patañjali's Yoga Sutras, and in Tibetan Tantric writings. Traces of it can be found in the litanies (dhikr s) of some orders of the Islamic Sufi mystics.

Early ethnographic reports of glossolalia treated it with contempt, calling it "absurd nonsense, gibberish scarce worth recording," while Christian theologians tended to think of it as an exclusively Christian phenomenon, peculiar, according to some, to apostolic times. Modern-day forms of glossolalia were classed as abnormal psychological occurrences, possible evidence of schizophrenia or hysteria, because researchers observed it only in mental patients. The situation started to change when, as the result of interest renewed by the upsurge of the Pentecostal movement, field-workers began to examine glossolalia as a part of religious ritual.

In an article published in 1969, for instance, Virginia H. Hine reported on a comparative anthropological investigation of the Pentecostal movement in the United States, Mexico, Haiti, and Colombia, combining the use of questionnaires, interviews, and participant observation (Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 8: 212226). Her functional analysis showed glossolalia to be a component in the process of commitment to a movement, with implications for both personal and social change. This conclusion agrees in substance with numerous ethnographic reports from non-Western societies, where glossolalia often appears before or during the initiation of religious practitioners.

A few years before Hine's study, the pathology model of glossolalia was refuted by L. M. Vivier-van Etveldt (M. D. diss., University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, 1960). He tested two carefully matched groups, one made up of members of a church that practiced glossolalia and the other made up of members of a traditional orthodox reformed church where such behavior was not accepted. A number of psychological tests, such as the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) and the Personality Factor Test developed by James Cattell, indicated no inherent weakness in the neural organization of the glossolalists. On the contrary, they appeared to be less subject to suggestion and better adjusted than their conservative counterparts. By implication, this finding should put to rest the numerous allegations that shamans, who frequently utter glossolalia, are psychotic. The salient difference between a religious practitioner and a mental patient lies in the fact that the latter is unable to control his behavior ritually.

As to formal properties, glossolalia is a nonordinary speech event in the sense that it consists of nonsense syllables. In contrast with natural languages, its syllables and segments are not words; that is, they do not exhibit the attribution of meaning, and they are not strung together according to rules of grammar. For this reason, linguists reject the interpretation of glossolalia as xenoglossia (from the Greek xenox, "stranger," and glōssa, "language"), which claims that glossolalia is some foreign language that could be understood by another person who spoke it. William J. Samarin, a linguist working with English-speaking Christian groups, regards glossolalia instead as a type of pseudolanguage. In his 1972 article "Variation and Variables in Religious Glossolalia" (Language in Society 1: 121130), he defines it as "unintelligible post-babbling speech that exhibits superficial phonological similarity to language without having consistent syntagmatic structure and that is not systematically derived from or related to known languages." He notes that glossolalia is repetitious and can be subdivided into macrosegments, which are comparable to sentences; microsegments, which are reminiscent of words; and sounds. There is also a pattern of stress and pitch. According to Samarin, speakers of English have an "English accent" in glossolalia; that is, their sounds are English speech sounds. He attributes these regularities to a particular style of discourse that practitioners assume by imitating certain preaching styles.

This writer's own fieldwork and laboratory research have led to somewhat different conclusions. As a psychological anthropologist and linguist, the author of this article conducted participant observation in various English-, Spanish-, and Maya-speaking Pentecostal communities in the United States and Mexico as well as with the founder of a new religion in Japan. In addition, tape recordings of non-Christian rituals from Africa, Borneo, Indonesia, and Japan were compared. The results indicated that when all features of glossolalia were taken into considerationthat is, its segmental structure (such as sounds, syllables, and phrases) and its suprasegmental elements (namely, rhythm, accent, and especially overall intonation)they seemed cross-linguistically and cross-culturally identical. Laboratory tracings that used a level recorder, which registers changes in pressure density (in this case, intonation), confirmed these impressions at least in the case of intonation. This method is also suitable for distinguishing glossolalia from such other nonordinary speech events as sleep talking and talking during hypnotic regression (see this writer's 1981 article "States of Consciousness: A Study of Soundtracks," Journal of Mind and Behavior 2: 209219). The latter finding is important, because many ethnographic observers consider the behavior of which glossolalia is a part to be hypnotically induced, which in view of these results is in error.

Self-reporting by ethnographic consultants and observation of their behavior indicate the presence of a changed state of consciousness during glossolalia, ranging from minimal to quite intense. This author therefore attributes the cross-cultural agreements in the features of glossolalia to these neurophysiological changes, collectively and popularly called trance, and defines glossolalia as a vocalization pattern, a speech automatism that is produced in the substratum of the trance and that reflects directly, in its segmental and suprasegmental structures, the neurophysiological processes present in this changed state of consciousness.

Put more simply, whatever takes place in the nervous system during a trance causes utterance to break down into phrases of equal length, provided the pauses are also included. That is, using a concept taken from music rather than linguistics, it causes the phrases to be divided into bars, each of which is accented on the first syllable, and it causes the bars to pulsate, to throb rhythmically in a sequence of consonant-vowel, consonant-vowel. And it is this writer's belief that the trance state is responsible for the haunting intonation of glossolalia; never varying, it rises to a peak at the end of the first third of the unit utterance and drops to a level much lower than that at the onset as it comes to a close.

The sounds of glossolalia do not necessarily reflect the inventory of the speaker's language, for they frequently include phones not found in a speaker's native tongue. English speakers, for instance, often use /a/ as a high central, unrounded vowel, the so-called continental sound, which does not occur in English, and Spanish speakers in Mexico may use /ö/ (the long, closed o, as in the German word Öse ), which is not a Spanish vowel. In addition, shrieks as well as barking, whistling, grunting, growling, and many other so-called animal sounds have also been reported.

Although glossolalia is often described as a spontaneous outburst, it is, actually, a learned behavior, learned either unawarely or, sometimes, consciously. The fact that individual congregations with a stable membership tend to develop their own characteristic glossolalia "dialect" indicates that learning has occurred, and the many traditional forms in which glossolalia appears in non-Western societies are obviously taught. These include such conventions as speaking individually, in groups, and in the form of a dialogue, often heard in the Japanese new religions, and singing.

As the foregoing characterization of glossolalia indicates, one probably needs to view trance as the primary behavior, on which vocalization is superimposed and into which the practitioner switches with the help of a large variety of stimuli, such as singing, dancing, clapping, and drumming. Present research suggests that this trancea frenzy, rapture, ecstasy, or, in more neutral terms, an altered state of consciousnessinvolves a single, generalized neurophysiological process. Barbara W. Lex, a medical anthropologist, holds that what is involved is an alternation between two different arousals of the nervous system. This tunes the nervous system and releases tension, thus accounting for the beneficial effects of the experience. Observations of Christian and non-Western religious communities alike indicate that apparently anybody with a normal physical endowment is able to initiate this process and to switch into a trance. Differences in personality, treated extensively by early researchers, apparently do not enter into the picture.

An association between trance and glossolalia is now accepted by many researchers as a correct assumption (see, for instance, Williams, 1981). Thus, if one recognizes trance as the primary, generating process of the features of glossolalia, one could then conclude that a vocalization consisting only of nonsense syllables, no matter how varied, may in fact represent a cultural convention and that other types of speech could also be uttered while the practitioner is in a trance, with the trance, of course, still expressing itself in some form or other. Field observation shows that this is indeed true. Nonsense syllables may occur in combination with words from the vernacular and/or a foreign languagesuch as "Come, Jesus" and "Hallelujah," which are often heard from American Pentecostalswithout disturbing the accent pattern or intonation of the utterance, its trance features. In the circumpolar region, many shamans, among the Inuit (Eskimo), the Saami (Lapps), Chukchi, the Khanty (Ostiaks), the Yakuts, and the Evenki, use in their religious rituals secret languages that consist of a mixture of nonsense syllables and the vernacular. Just like a natural language, these secret trance dialects are taught by the master shamans to their neophytes.

From Africa, there are reports of a secret religious trance language used exclusively by women. Bakweri women living on the slopes of Mount Cameroon speak a "mermaid language" in ritual context, which is taught to adolescent girls when they are ready for initiation. A girl's readiness is indicated by her "fainting," that is, experiencing a trance, and by her ability, while in this altered state of consciousness, to understand some of the mermaid language as it is spoken to her by a mature woman. No details of this language are known outside the tribe, for the male ethnographer was barred from learning it. (See Edwin Ardener, "Belief and the Problem of Women," in The Interpretation of Ritual, edited by J. S. La Fontaine, London, 1972, pp. 135201.) It is probably a mixed form, for he mentions that scraps of the mermaid language are common currency even among Christian, educated, urban Bakweri women. This suggests that these "scraps" may have turned into words or that they were not originally nonsense syllables but had specific, assigned meanings.

When speaking in a trance, a practitioner may use no nonsense syllables at all, employing instead only the vernacular. If the principal pronouncement is in nonsense syllables, however, as, for instance, among Christians speaking in tongues or among the nomadic, reindeer-hunting Chukchi of Siberia, an "interpretation" may be provided. Such interpretations exhibit a distinct, trance-based rhythm and an intonation whose exactness cannot be reproduced in the ordinary state of consciousness. This is the same phenomenon exhibited in the many forms of "inspired," prophetic speeches, heard around the world, in which a scanning rhythm imparts a poetic quality to the utterance. In such speeches words are sometimes truncated, and rules of grammar violated, overridden by the exigencies of the trance. Even communicative intent may have to be altered. Thus the demons who spoke through the trance of a German university student, Anneliese Michel, could ask no questions because in spoken German the tone of an interrogative must rise at the end, while all trance utterances have a pronounced drop. (See this author's book about this case, The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel, New York, 1981.)

The case of Anneliese Michel brings up the question of what kinds of religious experience are commonly expressed by glossolalia. In her case, the experience was that of possession, and glossolalia was the voice, the "language," of the demons that she reported were possessing her. Possession is one of the most frequent ritual occasions for the use of glossolalia. In possession, an entity from the sacred dimension of reality is experienced as penetrating the respective person. In Christian contexts, the entity is most usually the Holy Spirit, and glossolalia is then felt to be its language. The Holy Spirit is experienced as power, not as personality, but other spiritsfor instance, those of the dead of the Trobriand Islanders, ancestral spirits in Africa, and various spirits in Haitian vodouhave pronounced personality traits that are expressed in glossolalia. Western observers of possession may speak of role playing, but the experience is more that of being in the presence of a discrete being. The voice of the possessing being differs from that of the possessed practitioner. Anneliese Michel's demons spoke with a deep, raspy, male voice, and each onethere were six all toldexhibited distinct characteristics; Judas was brutal, for instance, and Nero effeminate. In vodou, female mediums are often possessed by male lwa (spirits), in which case a similar change in voice and, of course, in comportment takes place. In Umbanda, an Afro-Brazilian healing cult, possession by the child spirit will bring about an equally dramatic voice modification. Siberian shamans may be possessed by helpers in the form of animal spirits, and their speech then consists of animal voices, or "animal language." A similar change in language takes place when the shaman turns into an animal, which is a different experience, however.

According to a generally held belief, illness will result if a noxious being of the sacred dimension of reality possesses a person. Therefore, the harmful entity needs to be expelled, or exorcised. The method by which this is done depends on the tradition prevailing in the religious community in question. The ritual specialist carrying out the exorcism may merely recite a required formula while remaining in the ordinary state of consciousnessas was done for Anneliese Michel by a Catholic priest who spoke the exorcistic prayers from the Rituale romanum or he may enter a trance and utter glossolalia, usually a mixed version, which is thought to influence the actions of demons. This happens in Tantric exorcistic rituals in Tibet, for instance, and during healing sessions among Buddhists of northern Thailand.

Communication by glossolalia is instituted not only with unfriendly beings, of course. On a tape recording made in Borneo a female healer can be heard calling her helping spirit. In the zār cult of Ethiopia, the shamans talk to the zār s (spirits) in a "secret language." The shamans of the Semai of Malaysia use glossolalia to invite the "nephews of the gods" to a feast, and the Yanomamö Indians of Amazonia chant while in trance to their hekura demons, calling them to come live in their chests.

Quite generally, glossolalia cannot be considered a symbol. Rather, it is a medium of communication that directly informs both the participants and the onlookers of a ritual about the presence of and contact with the powers or the beings of the sacred dimension of realityabout the Holy Spirit who is baptizing a convert, perhaps, or about the appearance of any one of the multitude of entities that inhabit sacred realms.

See Also

Chanting; Enthusiasm; Frenzy; Language, article on Sacred Language; Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity; Spirit Possession.


Three books, published simultaneously in 1972, discuss glossolalia from different angles. My own work, Speaking in Tongues: A Cross-Cultural Study of Glossolalia (Chicago, 1972), provides a linguistic analysis of glossolalia and a descriptive study of the entire behavior; John P. Kildahl, in The Psychology of Speaking in Tongues (New York, 1972), takes up the relationship between personality variables and the practice of glossolalia; and William J. Samarin, in Tongues of Men and Angels: The Religious Language of Pentecostalism (New York, 1972), seeks to answer the question of why people speak in tongues by placing the behavior in social context. A comprehensive review of the research into glossolalia ten years later, including references to non-Western material, can be found in Cyril G. Williams's Tongues of the Spirit: A Study of Pentecostal Glossolalia and Related Phenomena (Cardiff, 1981). An anthology edited by Irving I. Zaretzky and Mark P. Leone, Religious Movements in Contemporary America (Princeton, N.J., 1974), gives a panoramic view of the multitude of religious movements in the United States, many of which use glossolalia. For a good description of glossolalia in a non-Western society, see Arkadii Federovich Anisimov's "The Shaman's Tent of the Evenks and the Origin of the Shamanistic Rite," translated from Russian by Dr. and Mrs. Stephen P. Dunn, in Studies in Siberian Shamanism, edited by Henry N. Michael (Toronto, 1963).

New Sources

Holm, Nils G. "Ecstasy Research in the 20th century. An Introduction." In Religious Ecstasy, edited by Nils G. Holm, pp. 726. Stockholm, 1982.

Holm, Nils G. "Glossolalia as a Transition Rite." In Transition Rites: Cosmic, Social and Individual Order, edited by Ugo Bianchi, pp. 143149. Rome, 1986. The theoretical conclusions of this essay and the preceding one are based on research on glossolalia within the Swedish-speaking Pentecostal movement in Finland.

Hutch, R. A. "The Personal Ritual of Glossolalia." Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 19 (1980).

Williams, Cyril G. "Glossolalia." In Concise Encyclopedia of Language and Religion, edited by John F. A. Sawyer and J. M. Y. Simpson, pp. 249250. Amsterdam, 2001.

Felicitas D. Goodman (1987)

Revised Bibliography

Tongues, Speaking in

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Tongues, Speaking in

Vocalization that sounds like a language but is devoid of semantic meaning or syntax; also known as glossolalia. Glossolalia is a protolanguage based on the everyday spoken language of the person, but lacking enough sounds (vowels and consonants) upon which to build an actual language. Glossolalia often occurs in a religious context, most notably modern Pentecostalism, where it appears as a vocalized religious expression.

Glossolalia is to be sharply distinguished from xenoglossia, or xenoglossy, the speaking or understanding of a foreign language one does not normally know or recognize. In the Bible, glossolalia is referred to as the tongues of angels (1 Cor. 13:1), possibly suggesting that the unintelligible sounds are an angelic language.

Glossolalia is familiar to most from its association with the birth of Christianity at Pentecost as described in the Christian New Testament (Acts 2), though what in fact is described is an event of xenoglossia. Those listening to the apostles speak were amazed to hear the sermon each in their own language. The more obvious example of glossolalia occurred in the Corinthian church of which Paul spoke when he said, "For he that speaks in a tongue speaks not unto men but unto God; for no man understands, but in the spirit he speaks mysteries" (1 Cor. 14:2).

There are accounts of how the gift of tongues descended on the London congregation of Rev. Edward Irving in 1831. Robert Baxter, in his book Narrative of Facts Characterizing the Supernatural Manifestations in Members of Mr. Irving's Congregation (London, 1833), gives a narrative of his own experiences:

" The power of the Spirit was so great upon me that I was obliged to call out, as in agony, for pardon and forgiveness and for strength to bear a faithful testimony. In these cryings I was, however, at the time conscious of a power of utterance carrying me beyond the natural expression of my feelings. for the space of more than ten minutes I was, as it were, paralysed under a shaking of my limbs, my knees rapping one against the other, and no expression except a sort of convulsive sigh. During this period I had no other consciousness than this bodily emotion, and an inexpressible constraint upon my mind, which although it left me composed and sensible of all I was doing, yet prevented my utterance and gave no distinct impression, beyond a desire to pray for the knowledge of the Lord's will. This increased so much that I was led to fall on my knees and cry in a loud voice 'Speak, Lord, for they servant hearest,' and this I repeated many times, until the same power of the Spirit which I had before felt, came upon me, and I was made to cry out with great vehemence, both of tone and action, that the coming of the Lord should be declared, and the messengers of the Lord should bear it forth upon the mountains and upon the hills, and tell it to the winds, that all the earth should hear it and tremble before the Lord."

The utterances often began in an unknown tongue and then passed into English. As one witness described them, "The tongue invariably preceded, which at first I did not comprehend, because it burst forth with an astonishing and terrible crash, so suddenly and in such short sentences that I seldom recovered from the shock before the English commenced."

The phrases were mostly taken from the Scriptures and repeated again and again. The actual words of the tongues were not recorded. Baxter believed them to be a jargon of sounds. However, the possessed also spoke with extraordinary fluency in languages with which they were but imperfectly acquainted. The utterances were supposedly grandiose both in manner and diction.

In a pamphlet, Drei Tage in Gros Almerode (Three Days in Great Almerode), J. Busching, a theological student at Leipzig, Germany, described ten cases of glossolalia at a religious revival in 1907 at Almerode, a small town in Hesse. The phenomena began with a hissing or peculiar gnashing sound. It was said that these sounds were produced when the subject, not wishing to disturb the order of service by interrupting a prayer already commenced, tried to repress the inward impulse acting on the speech organs; but the sounds had to come out, and the momentarily repressed glossolalies only burst forth with increased vigor.

Modern American Pentecostalism began in 1901 with the speaking in tongues that occurred at the Bethel Bible School in Topeka, Kansas. While away during the Christmas season of 1900, the school's founder set a task for the students: investigate the "baptism of the Holy Spirit" and discover what, according to the Bible, is the sign(s) of its presence. When he returned on New Year's Eve, he asked what the students had discovered. They replied, "speaking in tongues." Shortly after reaching a consensus on that point, the group retired to the chapel, where they entered a time of prayer. Then, on New Year's Day, 1901, Agnes Osman became the first person in modern times to ask for and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit with the accompanying sign of speaking in tongues.

Usually accompanying speaking in tongues is the additional phenomenon of the "interpretation of tongues," in which a reputed "translation" of the glossolalia is offered. An interpretation of tongues does not always occur even when it is prayed for. When it does occur, the speaker may either envision a written translation or hear it inwardly, or perceive directly the meaning of the foreign words.

Receiving the "baptism of the Holy Spirit" accompanied by speaking in tongues became the distinguishing mark of Pentecostalism. The movement spread from Topeka to Houston, Texas, and then to Los Angeles, California, from where it spread around the world.

Although Pentecostals were denigrated as "Holy Rollers" through much of the twentieth century (see George B. Cutten's Speaking with Tongues ), in the 1960s Pentecostalism began to spread through the mainline Christian churches first in North America and then in Europe. This new charismatic movement, as it was called, brought a new respectability to Pentecostalism and resulted in the acceptance of Pentecostals into the larger Evangelical movement. It also led to new attention to glossolalia by social and behavioral scientists and historians. While supernatural explanations still dominate among Pentecostal believers, a more mundane perspective has emerged from those who have observed glossolalia widely.

A few detractors put forth the idea, a remnant of religious prejudice from earlier in the century, that glossolalia was a sign of psychopathology. This idea was possibly the first laid to rest as it had no basis in empirical data. In fact, quite the opposite was found to be true, in that Pentecostals seemed to have a higher level of mental health than that of the general population.

Other detractors suggested that glossolalia was simply gibberish; however, linguistic studies, most prominently that of William Samarin, have suggested that it is in fact a very structured speech, easily distinguishable from gibberish or attempts to imitate glossolalia. It is also said to be a protolanguage, highly structured and derived from the everyday language of the speaker.

Its relation to everyday language suggests that it too, like everyday language, is a learned behavior, and experimental data, testing people's ability to learn glossolalia in a nonreligious setting, provides some substantiation of this hypothesis. Others have also suggested that glossolalia is related to altered states of consciousness. Glossolalia is not generally associated with severe alteration of consciousness as in trance or hypnosis, but it seems to involve lightly altered consciousness such as that which occurs in daydreaming.

Historians have noted the widespread appearance of glossolalia in various religious traditions from ancient Greece to modern Spiritualism, although certainly the great majority of recorded cases are in Christianity. Some Christians have countered the obvious implications of cross-cultural studies by arguing that some tongues speaking is simply a ruse by the devil to imitate the actions of the Holy Spirit.


Christie-Murray, David. Voices from the Gods: Speaking in Tongues. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978.

Cutten, George B. Speaking With Tongues: Historically and Psychologically Considered. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1927.

Goodman, Felicitas D. Speaking in Tongues: A Cross-Cultural Survey of Glossolalia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972.

Kelsey, Morton T. Tongue Speaking: An Experiment in Spiritual Experience. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1968. Reprint, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1973.

Kildahl, John P. The Psychology of Speaking in Tongues. New York: Harper & Row, 1972.

Samarin, William J. Tongues of Men and of Angels: The Religious Language of Pentecostalism. New York: Macmillan, 1972.

Spanos, Nicholas O., Wendy P. Cross, Mark Lepage, and Marjorie Coristine. "Glossolalia as Learned behavior: An Experimental Demonstration." Journal of Abnormal Psychology 95 (February 1986): 21-23.


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Glossolalia denotes the gift of speaking in a language in which facility has not been achieved through the process of human learning. The phenomenon appears three times in Acts (2.4, 6; 10.46; 19.6), where it is always a "corporate, church-founding, group-conversion phenomenon, and never the Spirit-experience of an individual" (cf. Bruner p. 192). In 1 Corinthians 12 to 14 there is a different understanding of glossolalia. It is presented as an individual prayer gift to be used in private devotion for personal edification (1 Cor 14.24) or, if there is an interpreter, in the public assembly. It is considered inferior to prophecy (1 Cor 14.5). Mk 16.17 speaks of "new tongues" but 16.920 seems to be addition to the Gospel. Some scholars hold that Rom 8.26 refers to tongues but this is unlikely as here the Spirit is said to pray within one "with sighs too deep for words" (stenagmois alalētous ).

Glossolalia has accompanied many religious revivals throughout history and is not unknown outside Christian circles. There appear to be three sources of the phenomenon: First, the genuine gift received from God and as experienced by such Christians as Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena, Francis Xavier, etc. Secondly, a "hypnotically" induced glossolalia which is not the authentic gift but probably akin to xenophoneo (strange speech) found among the second century Montanists (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 5, 16, 167). Similar to this are the ecstatic utterances acknowledged within many religious traditions. Thirdly, "tongues" may be due to diabolical obsession or possession.

The phenomenon in the Roman Catholic Church has become widespread since the recent public manifestations of the neo-pentecostal movement. Both the genuine and the hypnotic type appear to be present. The hypnotic type produces the characteristics of divisiveness, projection of anger, group camaraderie, histrionic display, pre-occupation with glossolalia and, most importantly, a regression of the ego which results in subordination to the authority figure who introduces the recipient to "tongues." In the light of this danger it would seem advisable to refrain from imposition of hands and repetition of syllables after leaders in order to help in yielding to tongues lest the hypnotic element be inadvertently introduced.

When the gift is genuine it facilitates prayer, especially that of praise and intercession, and is accompanied by fruits of the Spirit, especially peace and joy. Sometimes it endows the recipient with poetic and musical powers which he did not originally possess. Private interpretation may also be received. The gift is under the control of the will and may be used or not as desired (cf 1 Cor 14.27). According to Samarin even the genuine gift of tongues does not appear to be a language in the technical sense of the term but it is a "non-cerebral" means of communicating with God akin to silent prayer, wellknown liturgy, the Jesus Prayer or the rosary (Baer).

See Also: pentecostalism.

Bibliography: r. baer "Quaker Silence, Catholic Liturgy and Pentecostal GlossolaliaSome Functional Similarities," Logos International (1973). f. d. bruner, A Theology of the Holy Spirit (Michigan 1970). s. d. currie, "'Speaking on Tongues' Early Evidence outside the New Testament bearing on 'Glossais Lalein,"' Interpretation 19 (1965) 274294. j. d. davies, "Pentecost and Glossolalia," Journal of Theological Studies 3 (1952) 228231. j. m. ford, Baptism of the Spirit (Illinois 1971) 79133, or Theological Studies 32.1. r. h. gundry, "Ecstatic Utterance," Journal of Theological Studies 17.2 (1962) 329360. m. kelsey, Speaking with Tongues (1964). j. p. kildahl, The Psychology of Speaking in Tongues (New York 1972). w. j. samarin, Tongues of Men and Angels (New York 1972). f. stagg, e. g. hinson, and w.e. oates, Glossolalia (1967). j. p. m. sweet, "A Sign for Unbelievers: Paul's Attitude to Glossolalia," New Testament Studies 6 (Nov. 1968) 173179.

[j. m. ford]


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The term "glossolalia" literally translates from the Greek as "to speak in tongues." It is an ecstatic religious practice found in early Christianity, sporadically throughout the history of Christianity, and in various other religious traditions. Its most significant form in late-twentieth-century America is found in the Protestant Pentecostal and charismatic traditions.

Pentecostalism developed, at the turn of the twentieth century, out of the Wesleyan Holiness tradition. In 1901 Bethel Bible College students of Charles Parham in Topeka, Kansas, spoke in tongues, which Parham interpreted as evidence of the Baptism in the Holy Spirit mentioned in the Book of Acts. News spread to William Seymour, a Los Angeles holiness preacher, and a series of revivals began in Seymour's Azusa Street Mission. The ongoing revivals, in which glossolalia was a central practice understood as the evidence of the Baptism in the Holy Spirit (and therefore of sanctification), were marked by distinct racial and gender egalitarianism (Seymour was African American, and there were several women leaders).

Strict Pentecostals believe that glossolalia is the evidence of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of a Christian and that, therefore, all true Christians speak in tongues. For this reason they typically belong to specifically Pentecostal denominations, such as the Assemblies of God or the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel. Sine the 1970s, however, glossolalia has spread into traditionally non-Pentecostal denominations, such as the Episcopal and Catholic churches. Charismatics regard glossolalia as only one of many "gifts of the Spirit," each of which is evidence of the Holy Spirit's presence in the life of a believer. For this reason they often remain in their non-"spirit-filled" churches and practice the gifts on their own or in smaller cell groups.

Charismatics typically understand two forms of glossolalia as derived from the New Testament: a prophetic form, which can be "translated," in which God communicates directly to his people; and a private devotional form, in which believers commune with God in a mystical way that is thought to transcend both reason and language. St. Paul rebukes Christians who "make a show of their gifts" and commands those with the "gift of tongues" to refrain from public practice of the prophetic form of glossolalia when there is no one present who has been given the "gift of interpretation." The devotional form, however, is commonly practiced in charismatic churches as part of prayer sessions or as part of musical worship of the church service.

The practice of glossolalia is typically combined with the practice of other "gifts of the Holy Spirit." In addition to the "gift of interpretation," there is also the ability to aid in miraculous healing, the gifts of "words of knowledge" and "words of wisdom" (the ability to know hidden things and/or to speak prophetically), and other nonecstatic gifts, such as the "gift of administrations" and the "gift of hospitality." Heavy emphasis is placed on avoiding the sin of pride in regard to having been given the gift of tongues.

See alsoBaptisminthe Holy Spirit; Catholic Charismatic Renewal; Charismatic Movement; Ecstasy; Pentecostaland Charismatic Christianity.


Balmer, Randall. MineEyesHaveSeentheGlory. PBS video. 1992.

Neitz, Mary Jo. Charisma and Community. 1987.

Poloma, Margaret M. The Charismatics Movement. 1982.

Julie J. Ingersoll

Speaking in Tongues

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Speaking in Tongues

The phenomenon of speaking in tongues during ecstatic religious experiences is also known as glossolalia, and began among the first Christians.

Described in Acts 2:118, the Holy Spirit granted to the apostles the ability to speak in the languages of the foreigners who had assembled in Jerusalem for the observance of Pentecost. The visitors were amazed they could speak with them in their native language.

While Holy Spirit allowed the apostles to converse suddenly in a foreign language, later references implied that glossolalia was a kind of religious ecstasy or unintelligible babbling. In I Corinthians, Paul lists the variety of spiritual gifts that might be received by Christians; he writes that one such blessing is the ability to interpret what another speaking in tongues might be saying. Paul states that those who speak in a tongue that only God can understand might well be pleasing themselves, but they deliver no edification to others in the church. He concludes that, if one speaks in unknown tongues and no one can interpret the speech, then "let him keep silence in the church and speak to himself and to God."

Paul's denigration of the act of speaking in tongues set the standard for Christians down through the centuries. Various church fathers advised against the practice, and St. John of Chrysostom (c. 347407) believed that the usefulness of glossolalia for the Christian ended in the first century. St. Augustine (354430) denied that any special ability, such as speaking in tongues, prophesy, and so forth, proved one's faith. With the advent of the Protestant Reformation, leaders such as Martin Luther (14831546) dismissed glossolalia as unnecessary to the Christian faith.

In the eighteenth century, however, certain new visionary sects, such as the Shakers and the Catholic Apostolic Church, began to consider speaking in tongues as one of the special gifts given to true believers. Then, in the early 1900s, Pentecostalism declared that "Spirit-baptism" brought with its indwelling power the ability to speak in tongues. In the 1960s, glossolalia became suddenly popular even among the more mainstream churches.

While the movement spread in the 1970s, the position largely taken by the mainstream church bodies was that, while it may be legitimate gift from the Holy Spirit, glossolalia was hardly the normative expression for Christians and did not denote a superiority over those who did not practice it. However, today's approximately 500,000 practicing Pentecostals continue to believe in the power of the Holy Spirit to bring about a baptism of the spirit like that received by the apostles that enabled them to speak in tongues.


dyer, luther b. tongues. jefferson city, mo.: le roi, 1971.

rosten, leo. religions of america. new york: simon & schuster, 1975.

sherrill, john l. they speak with other tongues. new york: pyramid books, 1965.


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Glossolalia (Gk., glossa, ‘tongue’, + lalia, ‘speaking’). ‘Speaking in tongues’, the phenomenon, common in many religions, of a person speaking in words or word-like sounds which form a language unknown to the speaker. Related phenomena are xenoglossolalia, speaking in a foreign language unknown to the speaker but known to the hearer; and heteroglossolalia, speaking in a language known to the speaker which the hearer hears in his/her own language.


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glossolalia the phenomenon of (apparently) speaking in an unknown language, especially in religious worship. It is practised especially by Pentecostal and charismatic Christians.


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A form of religious speech generally called "speaking in tongues" or "pseudo-tongues." It is also occasionally confused with xenoglossis, which refers to speaking in tongues unknown to the medium or psychic.