The linguistics of speaking in tongues

Glossolalia, or speaking in tongues, occurs sometimes in Pentecostal and Charismatic Christian gatherings. It is supposed to be the language of God – but what does it say?

Brueghel the Elder's Tower of Babel
Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Speaking in tongues is a distinctive feature of some Pentecostal Christian traditions. Someone is baptised, or are praying out loud, and they burst into a stream of indecipherable speech. Believers connect this phenomenon to the spiritual gifts mentioned in the New Testament. The speaker is filled with the Holy Spirit and speaks in a language completely new to them – either a foreign tongue or a divine one.

(Various Christian traditions talk about a few divine languages, by the way: the language of Adam and Eve, the language of angels, and the language of God.)

But is this language or babble? Are there any discernible patterns or structures to this speech? Back in the early 1970s a linguist named William Samarin tried to find out. He collected as many samples of glossolalia as he could find – from snake handlers and Russian migrants, Pentecostals and Puerto Ricans. Then he transcribed and analysed them.

(This, by the way, is a standard practice in field linguistics: you go out into the wild and gather actual recordings of language. Samarin was a real field linguist. In fact, he was the first to use that term.)

One of his key findings: speakers may be talking in a new language, but they don’t use any new sounds. In other words, the sounds in their glossolalia are the same as the sounds in the languages they already know. No-one suddenly drops an unvoiced labialized pharyngealized back dorsal uvular ejective stop unless they already speak a language with that sound. And those sounds still follow the hidden rules of the speaker’s native language.

Another finding: it sounds like language. People shift their tone, pause, and stress syllables just like they do with normal language. There are breaks that give the appearance of words and sentences. The surface of glossolalia is definitely language-like.

The most important finding: while glossolalic speech is language-like, it doesn’t have any deeper level of organisation. All natural languages follow rules internal to that language, like morphology (how sounds form words) and syntax (how words form sentences). Glossolalia doesn’t show any evidence of those rules. It lacks a structure – there’s a lot of repetition of syllables but no meaningful patterns that could generate meaning.

His conclusion: it sounds like language but doesn’t actually function as a language. Of course, a speaker of tongues would argue that this is precisely the point. Humans cannot understand it because humans are not meant to understand it:

For he that speaketh in an unknown tongue speaketh not unto men, but unto God: for no man understandeth him; howbeit in the spirit he speaketh mysteries.

1 Corinthians 14:2

The fact that English speakers use English sounds when they speak in tongues, and Italian speakers use Italian sounds, does rather contradict the suggestion that this is a divine language, though.

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