Speaking in tongues
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Speaking in tongues (also known as glossolalia or babbling gibberish) is a practice in which people go into an ecstatic state and babble incoherently. It is traditionally seen as a sign of being filled with the Holy Spirit, and is seen as a direct form of communication with God. In Christianity it is most popular among the Pentecostals and similar charismatic sects. Outside of Christianity, speaking in tongues is more commonly seen in babies below the age of two, severely intoxicated individuals, and jazz scat singers.
Speaking in tongues is first mentioned in Acts 2:1-18, when the apostles, gathered during the day of Pentecost, were filled with the Holy Spirit and subsequently gained the ability to be understood in all languages. Onlookers expressed confusion when trying to understand why each of them heard the words of the apostles in their own native language. In concept it's similar to the Universal Translator plot device used in Star Trek to facilitate communication between humans and the various alien races featured in Star Trek lore.[note 1]
Paul later commented on the practice of speaking in tongues, when in 1 Corinthians 14:1-39 Paul offered advice as to how to do it. He endorsed the practice, to a certain extent, but cautioned against babbling in such a way that no one understands what's being said. He advised that only one person at a time should speak in tongues, and that it should only be done when there is someone on hand with the ability to translate what is being said. Paul, being a fine example of Christian humility, claimed to speak in more tongues than anyone else. Paul's reasoning appears primarily based on the problem that people in church were actively competing against each other—and of course it's a bit difficult to conduct a solemn religious meeting when stuck in a room full of people yelling random gibberish. As anyone who has experienced modern-day Pentecostals will attest, it also looks pretty silly.
Although Acts describes a form of speaking in tongues that is magically understood by all, 1 Corinthians and Galatians alters the nature of this alleged religious experience. In these later books there are those with the gift of tongues—who can only be understood by those with the gift of interpretation. The need for this "retcon" seems evidenced by the story in Acts in which people who witnessed the apostles speaking in tongues suggested that they were just drunk. This comment was dismissed by pointing out that it was only nine in the morning—implying that surely no one would be drunk at such an early hour. The writer of Acts had obviously never been invited to the right parties.
What does it sound like?
The "language" employed while speaking in tongues follows no standard structure, and the lexicon too is pretty random. There may be some approximate consistency among a single congregation, which can be explained by people mimicking each other, but only a superficial similarity is present among the individual speakers.
Practitioners tend to gravitate towards "biblical sounding" tongues - likely based on the perception that God's divine language would be similar to Hebrew, Latin, or other languages associated with the Christianity of antiquity.[note 2]
Why do they do it?
People who speak in tongues believe they are directly communicating with God, in God's language. It is a personal form of communication, and those doing it do not generally seek "translations" from their spiritual guides (apparently Paul was wrong on this point). Like many acts of religious ecstasy, they feel as if they are overtaken by the holy spirit, and describe themselves being "moved" by god, while their hearts are opened. The experience is not about facts, nor about actual answers to actual questions, nor about meaning to others. According to a recent PENN medical study, the language center of the brain is not in control when speaking in tongues.
Of course, given the nature of "speaking in tongues", there is a sense of peer pressure to have these experiences. Children from religious groups that practice glossolalia easily learn the game. For example, in the movie Jesus Camp there is a scene where the whole room of 8-12 year olds are all speaking in tongues.
Biologically speaking, glossolalia, like other ecstatic practices, is usually something that happens outside of conscious control. The mind is induced to produce speech unconsciously (compare this with hypnosis, dreams, and mystical "episodes").
Does it have any meaning?
Those who talk in tongues tend to identify their behaviors as ecstatic behaviors, rather than something to be decoded by themselves or their religious leaders.
Scientific and linguistic studies
Professor of Linguistics, William J Samarin concluded:
- While speaking in tongues does appear at first to resemble human language, that was only on the surface.
- The actual stream of speech was not organised and there was no existing relationship between units of speech and concepts.
- The speakers might believe it to be a real language, but it was totally meaningless.
Anthropologist Felicitas Goodman compared it with rituals from Japan and Indonesia as well as Africa and Borneo and concluded that there was no distinction. It truly is universal and quite easily crosses religious divides.
- See the Wikipedia article on Scat singing.
- Video of a congregation speaking in tongues Paul would not be impressed.
- A preacher leads children in speaking in tongues (This clip originates from the documentary Jesus Camp)
- The annoying orange discovers the phenomenon of speaking in tongues (Created by Christian Ice)
- Pentecostal Glossolalia: Toward a Functional Interpretation
- [Samarin, William J. (1972). Tongues of Men and Angels: The Religious Language of Pentecostalism. New York: Macmillan]
- Goodman, Felicitas D. (1972). Speaking in Tongues: A Cross-Cultural Study in Glossolalia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.