Psychology Wiki

Assessment | Biopsychology | Comparative | Cognitive | Developmental | Language | Individual differences | Personality | Philosophy | Social |
Methods | Statistics | Clinical | Educational | Industrial | Professional items | World psychology |

Transpersonal Psychology: Integral · Esoteric · Meditation

This article needs rewriting to enhance its relevance to psychologists..
Please help to improve this page yourself if you can..

Glossolalia (from the Greek, "γλώσσα" (glossa), tongue and "λαλώ" (lalô), I speak) comprises unintelligible utterances, often as part of religious practice. Glossolalia is claimed by some to be an unknown mystical language; others claim that glossolalia is the speaking of an unlearned foreign language (see xenoglossia).

While occurrences of glossolalia are widespread and well documented, there is considerable debate within religious communities (principally Christian) and elsewhere as to both its status (the extent to which glossolalic utterances can be considered to form language), and its source (whether glossolalia is a natural, supernatural, or spiritual phenomenon).

The origin of the modern Christian concept of speaking in tongues is the miracle of Pentecost, recounted in the New Testament book of Acts, in which Jesus' apostles were said to be filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke in languages foreign to themselves, but which could be understood by members of the linguistically diverse audience. This story in Acts, along with the concept of a "baptism in the Holy Spirit", forms the basis of the charismatic practice of glossolalia.

"Speaking in tongues" in Christian traditions

Glossolalia is featured both in Christian scriptures and in the practice of some contemporary Christians and Christian denominations.

Tongues in the New Testament

In the New Testament, the book of Acts recounts how "tongues of fire" descended upon the heads of the Apostles, accompanied by the miraculous occurrence of speaking in languages unknown to them, but recognizable to others present as their own native language.

The phenomenon described in the Book of Acts (2:1) is variously interpreted either as religious xenoglossia, the speaking of an actual foreign language, or as the gift of interpretation being given to those present: the ability to understand the tongues (each person in his own language).

Some of the Orthodox hymns sung at the Feast of Pentecost, which commemorates this event in Acts, describe it as a reversal of what happened at the Tower of Babel as described in Genesis 11. In other words, the languages of humanity were differentiated at the Tower of Babel leading to confusion, but were reunited at Pentecost, resulting in the immediate proclamation of the Gospel to people who were gathered in Jerusalem from many different countries.

Elsewhere in the New Testament some scholars say Paul describes the experience as speaking in an "unknown tongue". In I Corinthians 14:2 The King James Version has word 'unknown' in italics, indicating the word "unknown" does not appear in the original Greek manuscripts. Paul refers to tongues again in (1 Cor 14:14-19). Speaking in tongues is equivalent to speaking in foreign languages. Although the Apostle Paul commands church brethren, "Do not forbid speaking in tongues" (1 Cor 14:39), and that he wishes those to whom he wrote "all spoke with tongues" (1 Cor 14:5) and claims himself to speak with tongues more than all of the church at Corinth combined ("I thank my God I speak with tongues more than you all" 1 Cor 14:18), Paul discourages simultaneous speaking in tongues directed at people rather than God, lest unbelievers think the assembled brethren "mad" (1 Cor 14:23, 27). Tongues, says Paul, is speaking to God, rather than men, mysteries in the spirit (1 Cor 14:2), edifies the tongues-speaker (1 Cor 14:4), is the action of the praying of a person's spirit (1 Cor 14:14), and serves to bless God and give thanks (1 Cor 14:16-17).

Biblical descriptions of persons actually 'speaking in tongues' occur three times in the book of Acts, the first two coupled with the phenomenon of the Baptism with the Holy Spirit, and the third with the laying on of hands by Paul the Apostle, which embued them with the power of the Holy Spirit.

Tongues in church history

Twentieth century Pentecostalism was not the earliest instance of "speaking in tongues" in church history. There were antecedents in several centuries of the Christian era, e.g.

  • 150 AD - Justin Martyr wrote “For the prophetical gifts remain with us, even to this present time.” (Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter 82), and “Now, it is possible to see amongst us women and men who possess gifts of the Spirit of God;” (ibid, Chapter 88.)
  • 175 AD - Irenaeus in his treatise "Against Heresies" speaks of those "who through the Spirit speak all kinds of languages."[1]
  • circa 230 AD - Novatian said, “This is He who places prophets in the Church, instructs teachers, directs tongues, gives powers and healings, does wonderful works, often discrimination of spirits, affords powers of government, suggests counsels, and orders and arranges whatever other gifts there are of charismata; and thus make the Lord’s Church everywhere, and in all, perfected and completed.” (Treatise Concerning the Trinity Chapter 29.)
  • circa 340 AD - Hilary of Poitiers wrote, “For God hath set same in the Church, first apostles…secondly prophets…thirdly teachers…next mighty works, among which are the healing of diseases… and gifts of either speaking or interpreting divers kinds of tongues. Clearly these are the Church’s agents of ministry and work of whom the body of Christ consists; and God has ordained them.” (On the Trinity, Vol 8 Chap 33)
  • circa 390 AD - Augustine of Hippo, in an exposition on Psalm 32, discusses a phenomenon contemporary to his time of those who "sing in jubilation", singing the praises of God not in their own language, but in a manner that "may not be confined by the limits of syllables" [2].
  • ca 476 - 1000 AD - Dark ages; little history was recorded.
  • 1100s - Franciscan order of monks.
  • 1100s - Hildegard of Bingen is reputed to have spoken and sung in tongues. Her spiritual songs were referred to by contemporaries as "concerts in the Spirit." It is also claimed that this may have been a combination between her native German and Latin.[3]
  • 1300s - The Moravians are referred to by detractors as having spoken in tongues. John Roche, a contemporary critic, claimed that the Moravians "commonly broke into some disconnected Jargon, which they often passed upon the vulgar, 'as the exuberant and resistless Evacuations of the Spirit'" [4].
  • 1600s - The French Prophets: The Camisards also spoke sometimes in languages that were unknown: "Several persons of both Sexes," James Du Bois of Montpellier recalled, "I have heard in their Extasies pronounce certain words, which seem'd to the Standers-by, to be some Foreign Language." These utterances were sometimes accompanied by the gift of interpretation exercised, in Du Bois' experience, by the same person who had spoken in tongues. [5]
  • 1600s - Early Quakers, such as Edward Burrough, make mention of tongues speaking in their meetings: "We spoke with new tongues, as the Lord gave us utterance, and His Spirit led us" [6].
  • 1800s - Edward Irving and the Catholic Apostolic Church. Edward Irving, a minister in the Church of Scotland, writes of a woman who would "speak at great length, and with superhuman strength, in an unknown tongue, to the great astonishment of all who heard, and to her own great edification and enjoyment in God" [7]. Irving further stated that "tongues are a great instrument for personal edification, however mysterious it may seem to us."
  • 1910s - Early Pentecostalism - Earliest Pentecostals believed that their speaking in tongues really was xenoglossia[8].
  • 1960s - Charismatic Movement - Lutherans, Catholics, Methodists, etc. People from nearly every denominational background and ethnicity experience glossolalia in the U.S.

Contemporary Christian glossolalia

Some Christians practice glossolalia as a part of their private devotions and some sections of Christianity also accept and sometimes promote the use of glossolalia within corporate worship. This is particularly true within the Pentecostal and Charismatic traditions. Both Pentecostals and Charismatics believe that the ability to speak in tongues, and sometimes the utterance itself, is a supernatural gift from God.

Three different manifestations or forms of glossolalia can be identified in Charismatic / Pentecostal belief. The "sign of tongues" refers to xenoglossia, wherein one speaks a foreign language he has never learned. The "gift of tongues" or "giving a tongue" refers to a glossolalic utterance by an individual and addressed to a congregation of, typically, other believers. This utterance is believed to be inspired directly by the Holy Spirit and requires a natural language interpretation, made by the speaker or another person if it is to be understood by others present. Lastly "praying in the spirit" is typically used to refer to glossolalia as part of personal prayer. Both "giving a tongue" and "praying in the spirit" feature in contemporary Pentecostal and Charismatic practice.

Christians who practice glossolalia typically describe their experience as a regular and even mundane aspect of private prayer that tends to be associated with calm and pleasant emotions. This is in contrast to the perception of glossolalia amongst Christians who witness but do not practice glossolalia, and those who have no experience of glossolalia. Both tend to see speaking in tongues as a group activity associated with heightened emotion and excitement.[9]

The controversy about modern tongues

The claims of Pentecostals and Charismatics regarding Tongues has led to a serious and widespread controversy in many branches of the Christian Church, particularly since the birth of the Charismatic Movement in the 1960s. Many books have been published either defending[10] or attacking[11] their claims. The issue has often caused splits within local churches or in larger denominations. The controversy over tongues is sometimes part of the wider controversy between continuationists and cessationists, but sometimes due to differences of opinion regarding the biblical definition of tongues.

Glossolalia in other religions

Aside from Christians, certain religious groups also have been observed to practice some form of theopneustic glossolalia.

Glossolalia is evident in the renowned ancient Oracle of Delphi, whereby a priestess of the god Apollo (called a sibyl) speaks in unintelligible utterances, supposedly through the spirit of Apollo in her.

Certain Gnostic magical texts from the Roman period have written on them unintelligible syllables like "t t t t t t t t n n n n n n n n n d d d d d d d..." etc. It is believed that these may be transliterations of the sorts of sounds made during glossolalia. The Coptic Gospel of the Egyptians also features a hymn of (mostly) unintelligible syllables which is thought to be an early example of Christian glossolalia.

In the 19th century, Spiritism was developed into a religion of its own thanks to the work of Allan Kardec and the phenomenon was seen as one of the self-evident manifestations of Spirits. Spiritists argued that some cases were actually cases of Xenoglossia (when one speaks in a language unknown to him). However, the importance attributed to it, as well as its frequency, has since decreased significantly. Present-day spiritists regard the phenomenon pointless, as it does not convey any intelligible message to those present.

Glossolalia has also been observed in shamanism and the Voodoo religion of Haiti.

Scientific perspectives


The syllables that make up instances of glossolalia typically appear to be unpatterned reorganizations of phonemes from the primary language of the person uttering the syllables; thus, the glossolalia of people from Russia, the United Kingdom, and Brazil all sound quite different from each other, but vaguely resemble the Russian, English, and Portuguese languages, respectively. Many linguists generally regard most glossolalia as lacking any identifiable semantics, syntax, or morphology.[12] Glossolalia has even been postulated as an explanation for the Voynich manuscript.[How to reference and link to summary or text]


The first scientific study of glossolalia was done by psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin as part of his research into the linguistic behaviour of schizophrenic patients. In 1927, G.B. Cutten published his book Speaking with tongues; historically and psychologically considered, which was regarded a standard in medical literature for many years. Like Kraepelin, he linked glossolalia to schizophrenia and hysteria. In 1972, John Kildahl took a different psychological perspective in his book The Psychology of Speaking in Tongues. He stated that glossolalia was not necessarily a symptom of a mental illness and that glossolalists suffer less from stress. He did observe, however, that glossolalists tend to have more need of authority figures and appeared to have had more crises in their lives.

A 2003 statistical study by the religious journal Pastoral Psychology concluded that, among the 991 male evangelical clergy sampled, glossolalia was associated with stable extraversion, and contrary to some theories, completely unrelated to psychopathology.[13]

Nicholas Spanos described glossolalia as an acquired ability, for which no real trance is needed (Glossolalia as Learned Behavior: An Experimental Demonstration, 1987). It is also known as a simplex communication.


In 2006, at the University of Pennsylvania, researchers, under the direction of Andrew Newberg, MD, completed the world’s first brain-scan study of a group of Pentecostal Practitioners while they were speaking in tongues. One of the study's authors is a practicioner of glossolalia and a born-again Christian herself. The study concluded that while participants were exercising glossolalia, activity in the language centers of the brain actually decreased, while activity in the emotional centers of the brain increased.

During this study, researchers observed significant cerebral blood flow changes among individuals while exercising glossolalia, concluding that the observed changes were consistent with some of the described aspects of glossolalia. Further, the researchers observed no changes in any language areas, suggesting that glossolalia is not associated with usual language function.[14]

New York Times wrote about the study, and it has been published in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, Volume 148, Issue 1, 22 November 2006, Pages 67-71.

Glossolalia in popular culture

  • Neal Stephenson's science fiction novel Snow Crash involves Sumerian mythology, ancient history, the origin of languages and the phenomenon of glossolalia.
  • Progressive rock group The Mars Volta references glossolalia in several of their songs, most notably in the song "Tetragrammaton" off the album Amputechture.
  • Indie artist Matthew Friedberger's rock opera Holy Ghost Language School is about teaching Chinese businessmen xenoglossolalia.
  • Scottish singer Elizabeth Fraser, best known for her work as the lead singer of the Cocteau Twins, is considered to have frequently employed glossolalia in many of the group's songs.
  • Singer Lisa Gerrard, best known for her vocalizations as lead singer of Dead Can Dance and certain tracks on the Gladiator (film) soundtrack
  • Terrence McKenna engaged in glossolalia after receiving instructions to "sing objects into existence" from entities he encountered while using the powerful drug dimethyltryptamine. Recordings of him doing so can be heard on the "Speaking in Tongues" track from his Alien Dreamtime album and in the Shpongle song "A New Way to Say 'Hooray!'"
  • Sacha Baron Cohen, as the fictional Kazakhstani journalist Borat Sagdiyev in the movie Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, visited a Pentecostal church where practitioners engaged in glossolalia. Borat pretended to be "saved," and began engaging in fake and exaggerated glossolalia after forgiving the transgressions of others and promising to "use Mr. Jesus" in his travels.
  • A common parody of glossolalia is "shebotati, shebotaboti, shebotahundai!" (She bought a tie, she bought a bow tie, she bought a Hyundai!"
  • In the 2004 film Saved!, one of the characters, Cassandra--the only Jewish girl in a charismatic-oriented Christian school--fakes speaking in tongues.

Biblical references to speaking in tongues

  • Isaiah 28:11 (1 Corinthians 14:21)
  • Mark 16:17
  • Acts 2:4-15
  • Acts 10:44-48
  • Acts 19:2-6
  • 1 Corinthians 12:8-11
  • 1 Corinthians 13:1, 8
  • 1 Corinthians 14:1-40

See also

  • Biblical hermeneutics
  • Covenant theology
  • Dispensationalism
  • Pentecostalism
  • Charismatics
  • Grammatical-historical

External links


  1. Against Heresies Book 2 Chapter 4
  2. On Psalm 32, Enarrationes in Psalmos, 32, ii, Sermo 1:8
  3. citation needed
  4. Stanley M. Burgess, "Medieval and Modern Western Churches," Initial Evidence, ed. Gary B. McGee (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1991), 32
  5. John Lacy, A Cry from the Desert (London, 1708), p. 32) (The Charismatic Movement, 1975, Michael P. Hamilton, p 75)
  6. Epistle to the Reader by Edward Burrough, prefixed to George Fox, The Great Mystery of the Great Whore Unfolded and Antichrist's Kingdom Revealed Unto Destruction(London: Thomas Simmons, 1659), ISBN 0-404-09353-1
  7. Edward Irving, "Facts Connected With Recent Manifestations of Spiritual Gifts," Frasers Magazine (Jan. 1832)
  8. Anderson, Robert Mapes, Vision of the disinherited : the making of American Pentecostalism, Peabody, Mass. : Hendrickson Publishers, 1992, ISBN 1-56563-000-9, (Originally published: Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979)
    :"Alfred G. Garr and his wife went to the Far East with the conviction that they could preach the gospel in 'the Indian and Chinese languages.' Lucy Farrow went to Africa and returned after seven months during which she was alleged to have preached to the natives in their own 'Kru language.' The German pastor and analyst Oskar Pfister reported the case of a Pentecostal... 'Simon,' who had planned to go to China using tongues for preaching. Numerous other Pentecostal missionaries went abroad believing they had the miraculous ability to speak in the languages of those to whom they were sent. These Pentecostal claims were well known at the time. S.C. Todd of the Bible Missionary Society investigated eighteen Pentecostals who went to Japan, China, and India 'expecting to preach to the natives in those countries in their own tongue,' and found that by their own admission 'in no single instance have [they] been able to do so.' As these and other missionaries returned in disappointment and failure, Pentecostals were compelled to rethink their original view of speaking in tongues".
  9. Grady, B., & Loewenthal, K. M. (1997). Features associated with speaking in tongues (glossolalia). British Journal of Medical Psychology, 70, 185-191.
  10. Example: Christenson, Laurence, Speaking in tongues : and its significance for the church, Minneapolis, MN : Dimension Books, 1968.
  11. Example: Gromacki, Robert Glenn, The modern tongues movement, Nutley, N.J. : Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1973, ISBN 0875523048 (Originally published 1967)
  13. Francis L.J. and Robbins M., Personality and Glossolalia: A Study Among Male Evangelical Clergy, Pastoral Psychology, Volume 51, Number 5, May 2003, pp. 391-396(6)
  14. Andrew Newberg, Nancy Wintering and Donna Morgan (Radiology, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania ): Cerebral blood flow during the complex vocalization task of glossolalia, J Nucl Med. 2006; 47 (Supplement 1):316P

[[Category:Speech disorders] <--- da:Tungetale de:Zungenrede es:Glosolalia eo:Glosolalio fr:Glossolalie ko:방언 (종교) id:Glossolalia ia:Glossolalia lt:Glosolalija nl:Glossolalie nn:Tungetale no:Tungetale pt:Glossolalia ru:Глоссолалия sk:Glosolalia fi:Kielilläpuhuminen sv:Tungomålstalande zh:說方言 (宗教) --->

This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia (view authors).