Speaking in Tongues
Evaluation of "tongues" by linguists and others:
Two secular researchers conducted studies of Glossolalia in the 1970's:
|Felicitas Goodman, who used an anthropological approach across a range of cultures,
|William Samarin who used a linguistic approach. 3,4,5,6|
Some conclusions and opinions of linguists are:
|William Samarin wrote: |
"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." 7
|J.G. Melton 8 wrote briefly of Samarin's findings, who concluded that glossolalia is
not a true language. Only a few consonants and vowels appear in it.|
|An academic Internet mailing list, "The
Linguist List" focused on glossolalia in early 1995. 9|
|Some of the
subscribers noted that glossolalia had a simple primitive structure, and exhibited
repetition of individual sounds. |
|One commented that the words spoken within a given church
tended to be similar, and unlike the sounds heard within in another congregation.|
commented that his observations among American churchgoers showed that they "seem
to latch onto and then repeat sounds that sound foreign to them, and intersperse the name
'Jesus' in between the sounds." |
|Still another said that: "there are two continental charismatic
traditions - a French one concentrating on melodious spontaneous song
and a German/English one concentrating on speech." |
|A subscriber stated that:
"Some years ago as an undergraduate, I
memorized the first eleven lines to Beowulf. Occasionally I
recited them to people (I still do). Once I recited them to a
friend from Alabama, and she told me that if I did that back where she
came from, folks would say I was speaking in tongues."
|The moderator noted that the:
"... native language of the speaker was
a pretty good predictor of the kinds of sounds that would occur in
glossolalia; one general pattern was that sounds perceived as generally
marking "foreign" speech (whatever that may mean) would occur, while
sounds perceived as typical of the native language would not.
Thus, for American English speakers, /r/ would be rendered as the
alveolar trill, never as the American retroflex; on the other hand,
these speakers would not include the low front vowel in their
glossolalia, /ae/-as-digraph, because that's perceived as a typically
"American" sound for some reason. On the other hand, truly exotic
sounds--those not typical of the native language, but that don't happen
to be familiar to speakers of the language--would tend not to occur:
American English speakers don't produce clicks in their glossolalia."
|D.J. James quotes some conclusions of William Samarin:
"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."
A direct study of the reality of glossolalia in a church environment:
One analytical study of glossolalia was performed by an unknown person or persons.
One individual's ecstatic speech was tape recorded and played back separately to
many individuals who sincerely and devoutly believed that they had received the gift of interpreting
interpretations were quite inconsistent. e.g. one said that "the utterances
referred to a prayer for the health of someone's children." Another interpreted
the speech as "praising God for a recent and successful church, fund-raising
effort." It is obvious from that study that those particular interpreters were
unable to extract significant meaning out of the glossolalia. However, they were probably not conscious of that
Perhaps distortion, lack of frequency range or noise in the tape recorder inhibited the
interpreters' ability to understand the glossolalia. Perhaps the lack of facial
expressions or body English would inhibit the interpretation. It would be useful to
people's understanding of the gift of tongues if this type of test were replicated
"live" in different locations, under controlled conditions by linguists,
anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists, or other professionals.
This appears to be only a pilot study. It would have to be replicated by
others in order to establish the accuracy of the findings.
Brain scans of people speaking in tongues:
A group of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of
Medicine used Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography (SPECT) to analyze
brain activity within individuals as they spoke in tongues. It was the
first study of this kind. During this technique, a small quantity of a radioactive drug
is injected into a person's vein. The scanner then makes detailed images of tissues as
cells take up the drug.
During an interview on 2006-SEP-20 by Steve Paulson, Andrew Newberg --
Associate Professor of Radiology, Psychiatry, and Religious Studies and Director
for the Center for Spirituality and the Mind, at the University of Pennsylvania
-- said that the region of the brain involved in language is not
activated when a person speaks in tongues. He said:
"Speaking in tongues is a very unusual kind of vocalization. It sounds
like the person is speaking a language, but it’s not comprehensible. And
when people have done linguistic analyses of speaking in tongues, it does
not correspond to any clear linguistic structure. So it seems to be distinct
from language itself. That’s interesting because we did not see activity in
the language areas of the brain. Of course, if somebody is a deep believer
in speaking in tongues, the source of the vocalizations is very clear. It’s
coming from outside the person. It’s coming through the spirit of God.
They found decreased activity in the brain's frontal lobes, an area
associated with self-control. One of the researchers, Andrew Newberg, said: "It’s
fascinating because these subjects truly believe that the spirit of God is
moving through them and controlling them to speak." The data partly confirms
the subjects' beliefs. In fact, the subjects are not in control of their usual
language centers as they spoke in tongues.
Newberg, who is Principal Investigator in the study, was later interviewed
about his team's article in the journal Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging. He
"We noticed a number of changes that occurred functionally in the brain.
Our finding of decreased activity in the frontal lobes during the practice
of speaking in tongues is fascinating because these subjects truly believe
that the spirit of God is moving through them and controlling them to speak.
Our brain imaging research shows us that these subjects are not in control
of the usual language centers during this activity, which is consistent with
their description of a lack of intentional control while speaking in
Newberg went on to explain,
"These findings could be interpreted as the subject's sense of self being
taken over by something else. We, scientifically, assume it's being taken
over by another part of the brain, but we couldn't see, in this imaging
study, where this took place. We believe this is the first scientific
imaging study evaluating changes in cerebral activity -- looking at what
actually happens to the brain -- when someone is speaking in tongues. This
study also showed a number of other changes in the brain, including those
areas involved in emotions and establishing our sense of self."
The study also compared the brain activity in the same subjects as they sang gospel music. Newbert said: "We noticed a number of changes"
including in brain regions tied to emotions and the sense of self. 12,13
This is a SPECT
scan of a person speaking in tongues:
|Activity in the thalamus region (bottom arrow) is increased. |
|Activity in the left basal ganglia (top arrow) is decreased; this region
is involved with focusing attention and emotional responses. |
Image courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
- F. Goodman, "Phonetic Analysis of Glossolalia in Four Cultural Settings,"
Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (1969), Pages 227 to 239.
- F. Goodman, "Speaking in Tongues. A Cross-Cultural Study of Glossolalia,"
University of Chicago Press, (1972).
- W. Samarin, "Tongues of Men and Angels. The Religious Language of
Pentecostalism," Macmillan (1972).
- W. Samarin, "Variation and Variables in Religious Glossolalia,"
Language in Society, (1972), 1:121-130.
- W. Samarin, "Glossolalia as Regressive Speech," Language and Speech
- W. Samarin, "Review of Goodman (1972)," Language (1974), 5:207-213.
- D. J. Janes, "Glossolalia: The Gift of Gibberish," available at the
Institute for First Amendment Studies, at: http://www.ifas.org/
- J.G. Melton, Ed., "The Encyclopedia of American Religions," Volume 1,
Triumph Books, Tarrytown, NY, (1991), Page 41 to 47.
- Jussi Karlgren, "Speaking in tongues," The Linguist List, #6.385. A
compilation of responses by linguists to a question on the structure of
Available at http://linguist.emich.edu/issues/
- Jeff Wehr, "Speaking in Tongues," Our Firm Foundation, Vol. 11, #11,
1996-NOV-11. Available at: http://www.hopeint.org/
- Steve Paulson, "Divining the Brain," Templeton-Cambridge Journalism,
- Andrew Newberg, Nancy Wintering, Donna Morgan, and Mark Waldman, "The
Measurement of Regional Cerebral Blood Flow During Glossolalia: a
Preliminary SPECT Study." Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging
for 2006-NOV. This is the official publication of the International
Society for Neuroimaging in Psychiatry.
- "Language Center of the Brain Is Not Under the Control of Subjects Who
'Speak in Tongues'," University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine,
Copyright © 1998, to 2006 by Ontario
Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2006-NOV-03
Author: B.A. Robinson