Tower of Linguistic Babel: Speaking in Tongues

In a recent post, I noted that the faithful yearn for empirical affirmations of their ineffable beliefs.  For Evangelicals and Pentecostals (“charismatics”) one of these supposed affirmations can be found in church nearly every Sunday: someone will begin “speaking in tongues” and then someone else will proffer an “interpretation” of the message from God-Jesus or an angel.  As an impressionable youngster who attended such churches, I can attest that this is powerful stuff.  Actually hearing God-Jesus talk is a faith solidifier and doubt remover.

Scholars have long understood that if it could be proven that someone speaks a language they have never learned, it would be something like a miracle and proof in favor of faith.  They have, therefore, studied speaking in tongues — or “glossolalia” — with a fair degree of assiduousness.  They have attended charismatic churches across the US and the world, recorded these utterances and “interpretations,” and also interviewed those who speak in tongues. In another post, I noted that some researchers have scanned the brains of glossalalists while engaged in the linguistic act, and unsurprisingly discovered that language areas of the brain are engaged.

Charismatics themselves are not always clear about what speaking in tongues entails.  Some claim that glossolalists are speaking human languages that they never learned, but which have been instilled in them by the holy spirit.  Others claim that glossolalists are speaking completely unknown or celestial languages.  Scholars have examined both claims.  Most of this work has been done by linguists.

William J. Samarin, a linguist at The Hartford Seminary Foundation, has sympathetically evaluated most of this research in “The Linguisticality of Glossolalia.”  He begins by noting there is not a single documented case of a glossalalist speaking a known human language which the speaker did not learn.  Having analyzed thousands of glossic utterances, Samarin provides this definition of glossolalia:  “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.”

Glossas, in other words, are not human languages.  They bear none of the hallmarks of known human languages, living and extinct, and lack the aspects of universal grammar-structure that are characteristic of all human languages.

These findings therefore rule out the first explanation offered by charismatics:  glossalalists are not speaking any known human language and the utterances bear no resemblance to living or extinct human languages.  This leaves, then, the second explanation: these are not human languages and are celestial ones.  Samarin has examined this claim also.

If glossas are indeed non-human or celestial languages, they have some oddly distinctive and systematic characteristics that can be summarized as follows:

  • The glossas are always derivative of the speakers’ native language.  In other words, the phonemes, vowels/consonants, and syllables are those of the speaker’s native tongue.
  • The glossas often contain isolated words or phrases from known human languages which are different from the speaker’s native tongue.  These foreign language words or phrases are inserted at various points in the glossa.
  • There is a systematic clipping of syllabics and parsing of phonology (i.e., a shortening and simplification) that derives from the speaker’s native tongue.
  • This shortening and simplification leads to a high incidence of repetition.  The same non-semantic words and phrases repeat themselves often, though the ordering of these words-phrases is systematically switched during the course of the utterance.

Professor Samarin is a linguist at a theological institute and therefore is circumspect about these findings.  The implications, however, are clear.

On the first point, it seems odd that a celestial language would always be related to, or derivative of, the speaker’s native tongue.  The whole point of a glossa is that it is a heavenly tongue which is unintelligible to all except God-Jesus and angels.  If this is the case, then why would these glossas — in every known case — be based on the native tongue of the speaker?  Are we to suppose that some heavenly beings speak a language resembling French, while others speak languages resembling German, Spanish, Russian, Swahili, and English?

On the second point, it seems clear that some glossalalists have picked up words or phrases from languages foreign to their own and simply insert them at various points during the glossa.  This may sound interesting and add intelligibility to the utterance, but it hardly seems miraculous.  People learn foreign languages all the time.

On the third point, consistent clipping and shortening of syllables and phonology — all derived from the speaker’s native tongue — suggests that the speaker is rendering the native tongue unintelligible through a process I will call “mixology.”  While this may impress listeners, linguists are a bit more skeptical.  It sounds to them like the glossalalists are creating nonsensical pidgin versions of their native languages.

The fourth point is closely related to the third.  If the glossalalist has only a limited repertoire of shortened-simplified words and phrases with which to work, it stands to reason that these would be consistently used but in different word-phrase orders.  This in fact is what linguists have noted.

When all is said and done this raises some interesting psychological questions about the nature and function of faith, at least within the charismatic community.  It would also be interesting if someone would systematically research the “interpretations” that are rendered after the glossic utterances are performed.  As Samarin observes: “Interpretations do in fact take place, but they are usually pious exhortations in the language of the group where the glossic utterances are made.  They are often strikingly longer or shorter than the glossic utterance.”

My guess would be that any such study would reveal that the “interpretations” are highly patterned, structured, repetitious, and predictable.

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