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. 131),
possibly suggesting that the unintelligible sounds are an angelic
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.
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
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
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
Tomga Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
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
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,
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.