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Glossolalia is fabricated, meaningless speech.

According to Dr. William T. Samarin, professor of anthropology and linguistics at the University of Toronto, 

glossolalia consists of strings of meaningless syllables made up of sounds taken from those familiar to the speaker and put together more or less haphazardly .... Glossolalia is language-like because the speaker unconsciously wants it to be language-like. Yet in spite of superficial similarities, glossolalia fundamentally is not language (Nickell, 108).

When spoken by schizophrenics, glossolalia are recognized as gibberish. In charismatic Christian communities glossolalia is sacred and referred to as "speaking in tongues" or having "the gift of tongues." In Acts of the Apostles, tongues of fire are described as alighting on the Apostles, filling them with the Holy Spirit. Allegedly, this allowed the Apostles to speak in their own language but be understood by foreigners from several nations.

Glossolalics behave in various ways, depending on the social expectations of their community. Some go into convulsions or lose consciousness; others are less dramatic. Some seem to go into a trance; some claim to have amnesia of their speaking in tongues. All believe they are possessed by the Holy Spirit and the gibberish they utter is meaningful. However, only one with faith and the gift of interpretation is capable of figuring out the meaning of the meaningless utterances. Of course, this belief gives the interpreter unchecked leeway in "translating" the meaningless utterances. Nicholas Spanos notes: "Typically, the interpretation supports the central tenets of the religious community" (Spanos, 147).

Uttering gibberish that is interpreted as profound mystical insight by holy men is an ancient practice. In Greece, even the priest of Apollo, god of light, engaged in prophetic babbling. The ancient Israelites did it. So did the Jansenists, the Quakers, the Methodists, and the Shakers.

There is evidence that while speaking in tongues people experience a sharp decrease in frontal lobe function, the area of the brain that enables reason and self-control. There is also increased activity in the parietal region of the brain, which takes sensory information and tries to create a sense of self relating to the world. Psychiatrist Andrew Newberg, Director of the Center for Spirituality and the Mind at the University of Pennsylvania, studied five African-American Pentecostal women who frequently speak in tongues. As a control activity, Newberg had the women sing gospel tunes while moving their arms and swaying.*

Newberg gave the Pentecostals an intravenous injection of a radioactive tracer that allowed him to measure blood flow and "see" which brain areas were most active during the behaviors. Newberg and his associates published their findings in the November 2006 issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging. During glossolalia, the part of the brain than normally makes a person feel in control was essentially shut down. The findings make sense, says Newberg, because speaking in tongues involves giving up control and feeling a "very intense experience of how the self relates to [a] god."*

Newberg noted that the glossolalia responses were the opposite of those of people in a meditative state. When people meditate their frontal lobe activity increases, while their parietal activity decreases. In meditation, one loses the sense of self while controlling one's focus and concentration.

The Pentecostal movement seems to have originated in the 19th century,* although the Biblical basis for the practice is traced to the Acts of the Apostles. The practice of Pentecostals differs, however, from what is described in Acts. Pentecostals utter gibberish and claim that they are speaking in a language understood by some god but not by other Pentecostals, but in Acts we are told that those present not only spoke "with other tongues" but "every man heard them speak in his own language."

And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting.  And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them.  And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.  And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven.  Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language.  And they were all amazed and marveled, saying one to another, Behold, are not all these which speak Galileans?  And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born?  Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, and in Judaea, and Cappadocia, in Pontus, and Asia,  Phrygia, and Pamphylia, in Egypt, and in the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and strangers of Rome, Jews and proselytes,  Cretes and Arabians, we do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of [some] god. [Acts II; 1-11]

This story is supposed to support the notion that such an event really did occur and it was prophesied by Joel that this kind of thing would happen in the last days. There is nothing in Joel, however, that prophesied that, when the last days didn't come as predicted, plan B would be to wait 1900 years and have a revival and claim that when you speak gibberish it is a sign that some god loves you.

See also xenoglossy.

further reading

reader comments

books and articles

Baker, Robert A. Hidden Memories : Voices and Visions from Within (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1996).

Nickell, Joe. Looking For A Miracle: Weeping Icons, Relics, Stigmata, Visions and Healing Cures (Prometheus Books: Buffalo, N.Y., 1993).

Spanos, Nicholas P. Multiple Identities and False Memories: A Sociocognitive Perspective (Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 1996).


Tongues on the Mind by Constance Holden ScienceNOW Daily News 2 November 2006

A Neuroscientific Look at Speaking in Tongues by Benedict Carey, New York Times, Nov 7, 2006

Speaking in Tongues by Karen Stollznow

Last updated 27-Oct-2015

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