Speaking In Tongues: The Language And Practice Of Glossolalia

What makes people speak in tongues, and what are they actually saying? We investigate glossolalia and what researchers have discovered about it.
speaking in tongues

You may have never heard the word “glossolalia” before, but you’ve likely heard the colloquial version of this term: speaking in tongues. Mostly, the phenomenon comes up in a religious context, and perhaps you’ve even seen clips on TV or YouTube videos of worshippers writhing on the floor and muttering apparent gibberish. This is glossolalia in action. And while it’s not hugely prevalent, you can encounter people speaking in tongues in churches in the United States and around the world.

Speaking In Tongues: Why Do People Do It?

Glossolalia is very common in Pentecostal Christian worship services, but it has also occurred in other sects of Christianity, as well as in other religions (and cults), such as paganism, shamanism and Japan’s God Light Association.

People tend to speak in tongues during intense religious experiences, and Christians often attribute glossolalia to a divine gift from the Holy Spirit. We’ll discuss scientific findings later in this article, but there appears to be a link between glossolalia and specific brain activity. There have also been claims that glossolalia is a manifestation of anxiety or some sort of psychosis, a stress reliever, or perhaps entirely made up.

The Linguistics Of Glossolalia

When we began looking into glossolalia, our first question was: what are people actually saying when they speak in tongues? Is there any linguistic component? While various religious leaders throughout history purported to believe that glossolalia was actually just speaking a foreign language, the reality is that it’s just a string of meaningless sounds, and often the speaker isn’t even aware of what they’re saying.

However, research conducted by linguist William J. Samarin from the University of Toronto suggests that while glossolalia is gibberish, it does resemble human language in certain ways, such as the use of intonation, rhythm and pauses to separate groups of syllables. But when Samarin asked a group of students to invent an artificial language on the spot, what they came up with was very similar to glossolalia, leading him to the conclusion that glossolalia is an invented language that anyone can produce.

What The Science Says

Linguistics aside, a few scientific studies have been conducted to determine what is happening in the brain when someone starts speaking in tongues.

One such study, conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, looked at changes in cerebral activity during bouts of glossolalia and found that there was decreased activity in the frontal lobes. These are the parts of the brain associated with controlling our behavior, so the implication is that when people speak in tongues, they experience a loss of control. The study also found that tongue speakers were not in control of the usual language centers that would be activated during normal speech, indicating that calling glossolalia a sort of “language” would be disingenuous.

But if not a language, and not a controlled uttering of sounds, what is glossolalia? It may require many more studies to find out.

Not interested in speaking in tongues?
Try Babbel