The Gift of Gibberish
by D. James Janes
The following article is not by a member of the Church and
reflects his own opinions regarding the phenomenon known as
"tongue-speaking" which for many is seen as "proof" for being a
Christian. New Covenant Christians have consistenly rejected all
forms of meaningless, dissociated speech as being unbiblical,
and have only recognised two forms of valid tongue-speaking: (a)
foreign languages (usually living tongues), and (b) Adamic, the
"language of angels" which we maintain to be a true language
with proper grammar and vocabulary. Though Mr. James is not a
believer we basically endorse his scientific analysis of
pentecostal and neo-pentecostal "glossolalia". -- Ed.
GLOSSOLALIA: THE GIFT OF GIBBERISH
Strolling through the television one day, I encountered one of
the many televangelists available for video perusal. This guy
was speaking a little funny. At first, I thought that he was
perhaps speaking Spanish. But having three courses under my belt
forced me to discount this possibility when I was unable to
recognize anything as Spanish. In fact, I could not detect any
familiar sound at all, from any language.
Well, I must admit that at one point it sounded as if this
preacher -- Robert Tilton -- had spoken a phrase familiar to
those of us with children, "Kowwabunga, dude!" -- the famous
victory cry of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Suddenly, the
preacher stopped speaking whatever language he had been speaking
and began to talk in completely understandable English. Ah, now
I understood. He had been "speaking in tongues," or, to use the
psycholinguistic, he had been engaged in an act of glossolalia.
Glossolalia, which usually occurs within a religious context,
consists of unintelligible yet seemingly structured speech. In
most instances, the speaker is experiencing an altered state of
consciousness very much like self-hypnosis. Through the
centuries, the popularity of glossolalia has fluctuated, but it
has never disappeared.
The most recent resurgence of tongue-speaking took place in the
1960s when it was spewed out of the mouths of thousands of
Pentecostals at numerous tent revivals held throughout that
decade. Interested members of other religious groups adopted the
practice and incorporated it into their own system of worship.
And, as I found out, glossolalists are even on TV. While the
existence of speaking in tongues may not be a revelation to some
people (there are more than four million speaks of glossolalia
in the U.S. alone), many are unaware that the phenomenon is a
global one, not attached exclusively to Christianity. All cases,
however, share a disputation of genuineness.
What concerns us here, depiste the fascinating psychological and
social dimensions of glossolalia, is the linguistic feasibility
of the event. Is it a language? More specifically, since the
ascertainment of an existing language would be relatively
straightforward, if it is a language, is it one that the speaker
knows or has been exposed to? Is it language-like? Does it
follow any reasonable phonological, morphological, or syntactic
pattern? Does it differ significantly (linguistically) from the
speaker's native language? Are there any aberrant, alien
phonemes? In short, is glossolalia an example of a strange
linguistic reality, or is it a display of self-induced vocal
hysteria, an ejaculation of gibberish?
Speaking a language foreign to one's native tongue without
having ever learned it or ever having heard it is technically
called xenoglossia, and not quite the same thing as [biblical]
glossolalia. The two types of verbal abnormalities are often
linked together because [interpreters of] the Bible are unclear
whether the apostles were speaking in an unfamiliar foreign
language or all uttering in one unknown tongue. Either way,
there has been only one credible account of anyone speaking a
foreign language with no previous exposure to it. This one
exception was a Jewish woman who, under hypnosis, slipped into
another personality able to speak in Swedish. The typical claim
usually turns out to be a hoax. [Ed. There are many well
documented accounts of Christian ministers speaking fluently in
Chinese, Russian and other languages, which New Covenant
Christians would regard as bone fide biblical tongue-speaking].
One of the characteristics of glossolalia is that it can
resemble known languages, since there are only so many speech
sounds physiologically possible. Not surprisingly, glossolalists
may string together certain consonant-vowel combinations that
are phonemically similar to a foreign language. Equally likely
would be the possibility of a glossolalia-produced meaningful
unit, a short word fully recognizable from a foreign language.
Of many possibilities might be the hearing of the word para or
por, both variations of the article for, amidst a glossolalia
string. Despite the preponderance of unfamiliar "words" (and
phonemes), the listener might attribute to the speaker the
ability to speak Spanish. Akin to this kind of "successful"
linguistic search are the notorious discoveries of hidden
messages in record albums played backwards. [Ed. These are signs
of demonic possession].
The unlikelihood of xenoglossia does not rule out the claim that
glossolalists are speaking some type of language. After all, one
would not expect the tongues of angels to be as culturally or
geographically specific as German or Spanish. No, this language
should be universal in nature, potentially understandable by
everyone, with a vocabulary completely different from all other
languages. Like every other rule-based language, even the angels
would need a regulated system of lingual communications in order
to maintain any semblance of order, lest all hell break loose.
Within the speech of millions of glossolalists should be found a
grammatical set with shared sounds, shared words, and a shared
Syntactical analyses of glossolalia have yielded no linguistic
patterns of tongue-speakers. Unfortunately, the architecture of
a glossolalia blurb is rather inscrutable and nearly impossible
to break down into sentences or phrases. And yet, most listeners
and linguists agree that speakers of tongues incorporate
grammatical elements into their speech that would seem to be
indicators of a syntactical arrangement. There are the necessary
inflections and pauses and rhythmic cadences that appear to
organize the verbiage into macrosegments (sentences),
microsegments (words), phonemes. One theory explains the metered
vocalization as symptomatic of a rhythmical discharge of
subcortical strucutres operating during a trance state. If
speech is biologically interrupted, it could appear to be a
sentence pause. It would certainly be hard to catch "words"
being cut off or notice illogical breaks in expression when
neither can be identified.
Since sentences and phrases are generally composed of smaller
units called words, semantical research on microsegments might
isolate a glossolalia glossary (minus the definitions). If, on
the other hand, a study of glossolalia should support the
hypothesis that there is no lexicon among its practitioners, a
larger assumption could be made that sentences are inconceivable
without words. The evidence is mixed. One case study that
inventoried identifiable (repeated) microsegments would commit
no more than to say that "glossolalia is at least remotely
language-like." Other findings, based on both longitudinal and
comparative studies, have elicited less tepid conclusions from
researchers who believe that "a vocabulary does seem to be
operative" within and among glossolalists. They provide one
example of a "word" shared in slightly altered form from various
tongues-speakers across America. The word is "shun-da" and eight
different variations are offered. Unfortunately, we are never
told what this word means, if indeed it means anything at all.
Neologisms (newly coined words) are the trademark of
glossolalia. Meanings are another story.
The strongest correlation between glossolalia and language comes
from an analysis of phonemes. As mentioned previously, it is
statistically probable that glossolalists will reiterate
familiar consonant, vowel, or diphthong sounds simly because the
vocal tract can only produce a finite base of phonemes. If,
however, the tongues of angels is a language unique and apart
from all the other known languages in the world, then one would
expect glossolalists to reproduce significantly fewer phonemes
from his or her native language. This is exactly what Michael T.
Motley found in his case study of a 61-year-old male
Pentecostal. On the basis of his phonetic analysis, he concluded
that glossolalia is language-like. Ultimately, however, he could
not concede that glossolalia is a language.
An alternative hypothesis to phoneme expectancy might be that
glossolalia is a psycholingual catharsis. Entering into an
altered state of uncontrolled, energetic, spontaneous verbal
creativity, it seems reasonable that a great variety of sounds
could ensue. Temporarily detached from a conscious connection to
his or her natural language, the vocal tract of the glossolalist
is allowed to contort into otherwise unfamiliar positions.
Without basing phonemic expectations within the context of an
unknown language, deviant phonemes would be more likely to
occur. This does not mean that glossolalia would be any less
language-like. It would mean, however, that speaking in tongues
is closer to a schizophrenic's word-salad than a divine
language. This is not supported by research, which has shown
both schizophrenese and faked glossolalia to be much less
language-like than (and I hesitate to say this) the real thing.
So, where does that leave us? William Samarin, a long-time
researcher into the speaking of tongues, summarizes:
When the full apparatus of linguistic science comes to bear on
glossolalia, this turns out to be only a facade of language --
although at times a very good one indeed. For when we comprehend
what language is, we must conclude that no glossa, no matter how
well constructed, is a specimen of human language, because it is
neither internally organized nor systematically related to the
world man perceives.
Samarin's conjecture is in line with that of most linguists and
psychologists, who are impressed with the phenomenon, but not
nearly convinced that it represents any type of language. It is
an event with meaning and power to those who exhibit the
behavior, and to those who claim to be able to understand it.
But in the words of Skipp Porteous, a former tongues-speaking
Pentecostal minister, "as far as its being any sort of language,
that is pure nonsense -- it is gibberish." A Teenage Mutant
Ninja Turtle could not have put it any better.
Adapted, with thanks, from Walk Away Glossolalia
Comments by the editor have been placed in [square parentheses].
This page was created on 22 November 1977
Last updated on 23 February 1998
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