Biology Magazine

Cross Cultural Glossolalia: Babeling

By Cris

Glossolalia or “speaking in tongues” is known primarily from charismatic Christian churches. In that setting it has been studied extensively with some remarkable findings. In Tower of Linguistic Babel, I examined one of those studies and noted some curious features of “tongues” or glossas:

  • They are always derivative of the speakers’ native language. In other words, the phonemes, vowels/consonants, and syllables are those of the speaker’s native tongue.
  • They often contain isolated words or phrases from known human languages which are different from the speaker’s native tongue. These foreign language words or phrases are inserted at various points in the glossa.
  • There is a systematic clipping of syllabics and parsing of phonology (i.e., a shortening and simplification) that derives from the speaker’s native tongue. These clippings-parsings are so regular that experts in the field can predict them before hearing a new “tongue.”
  • This shortening and simplification leads to a high incidence of repetition. The same non-semantic words and phrases repeat themselves often, though the ordering of these words-phrases is systematically switched during the course of the utterance.

It seems odd that a supposed celestial or “angelic” language would always be related to, or derivative of, the speaker’s native tongue. Other studies have confirmed this oddness and link “tongues” with dissociative trance states. If this is the case, then we should not be surprised to find glossolalia in non-Christian cultures. This is indeed the case.

In a cross cultural survey of glossolalia and related forms of dissociative speaking, Harvard anthropologist L. Carlyle May concluded that the Christian tradition of speaking in tongues “probably had its roots in the ancient religions of Asia Minor.” Similar sorts of speaking were widely known in the Greco-Roman world and were generally considered, by polytheist and philosophical elites, to be “primitive” or “barbaric” practices. These speech acts were, in other words, associated with shamanist societies and what May calls “religiomedical practitioners.” While we today tend to think of such societies as small-scale foragers or horticulturalists, in classical times there were several large and powerful groups (such as the Visigoths, Huns, and Vandals) that were still suffused with shamanic ideas and practices.

During the course of his study, May was able to parse and categorize dissociative speech-phenomena into six categories:

Language of Spirits: This is the speaking of an alleged “language,” considered to be glossolalic gibberish by linguists, known only to supernatural beings. It usually occurs while in a state of trance or excitability, and was often used during divinatory or curing ceremonies. This type of “language” was widespread in shamanic societies and is the kind of speech that charismatics call “angelic tongues.”

Sacerdotal Language: In contrast to the preceding linguistic nonsense, sacerdotal speech is an actual archaic language learned by shamans or priests and passed down faithfully from one generation to another. Over sufficient time the vernacular would change, making sacerdotal language intelligible only to specialists and cognoscenti. A modern analogy would be Latin speaking Catholic priests.

Language of Animals: This “language of nature,” often used by shamans and found worldwide, simply and expertly mimics animal sounds. Shamans would claim they were talking to animals in this manner, and also claim that such “speech” was a sign he could transform himself into a nonhuman embodiment and move freely between the under world, earth world, and sky world.

Phonations Frustes: These incoherent speech acts include ventriloquism, whistling, groaning, shrieking, crying, and mumbling, frequently interspersed with actual but strangely altered speech. At times, shamans will change and project their voices as if carrying on a conversation with spirits.

Xenoglossia: This is actual speech in a real language. It is uttered by someone who claims that s/he never learned the language, that the language is not consciously accessible, and that it arose spontaneously. The language is spoken only in a trance or dissociative state. This is well known from alleged cases of glossolalia among Christians but is also known among shamans. When cases of xenoglossia are investigated, it is nearly always the case that the person has had substantial exposure to the foreign language, and there are mundane explanations for its use. Unsurprisingly, xenoglossia is most common in Africa where people are often raised in polyglot environments. Among some Buddhists, xenoglossia is explained by transmigration of souls. Thus, if a Korean is able to speak German without supposedly having learned the language, it is explained by saying that in a past life, the person must have been German.

Ermeneglossia (Interpretation of Tongues): This is normal speech which follows one of the previous speech displays. It supposedly interprets what was previously uttered. This too is well known in some Christian circles but is also widespread in shamanic societies. Because this nearly always involves two people, implicit or explicit cooperation is essential. Glossolalia and ermeneglossia often appear together, so that “the gibberish is explained and put to use.”

As is true of all scholars who have studied these speech phenomena, May concludes they have cultural origins, conventions, and constraints:

Religious mores determine to a great extent how the practitioner may act when he is entranced and whether or not he may become entranced at all while curing, divining, or convoking the spirits. Even if frenzied behavior is countenanced in a given society, the speaker is not given absolute freedom of behavior: he must follow within certain bounds the customs of other speakers. Consequently, there seems to be considerable truth in the assertion that people do not speak in tongues unless they have heard about speaking-in-tongues, and to this should be added that on the whole they become glossolalists only if their customs permit them to.

Glossolalia in one form or another is found in religions that are tolerant of highly emotional, individualistic behavior on the part of medicine men and their assistants. The priest may seize upon exotic utterances to demonstrate the realness and variety of his powers and to maintain about himself an air of mysticism and otherworldliness. Laymen are inclined to accept his odd sounds as proof of his spiritual prowess.

This survey has shown that speaking-in-tongues is widespread and very ancient. Indeed, it is probable that as long as man has had divination, curing, sorcery, and propitiation of spirits he has had glossolalia. Other forms of speech-phenomena that have been discussed would also seem to be very old.

As far as May is concerned, all these speech acts are learned either explicitly through teaching or implicitly through mimicry. There is no evidence to the contrary.

If you are interested in these kinds of speech acts, head over to your local Penetecostal church on Sunday to marvel at Babel for yourself.

Cross Cultural Glossolalia: Babeling

"Glossolalia" by James Roper


May, L. Carlyle (1956). A Survey of Glossolalia and Related Phenomena in Non-Christian Religions. American Anthropologist, 58 (1), 75-96 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1956.58.1.02a00060

Goodman, Felicitas (1969). Phonetic Analysis of Glossolalia in Four Cultural Settings. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 8 (2) DOI: 10.2307/1384336

Samarin, William (1968). The Linguisticality of Glossolalia. Hartford Quarterly, 8 (4), 49-75

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