Glossolalia: the gift of gibberish
By D. James Janes
Strolling through the television one day, I encountered one of the
many televangelists available for video perusal. Normally, the image
of a TV preacher would grace my screen for several milliseconds at
most, but this time something caught my attention. 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, 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. The origin of glossolalia is commonly attributed
to the early Christian church. It was first mentioned in Acts, when
the apostles, on the day of Pentecost, "began to speak with other
tongues." The bizarre behavior gained credence and spread when Paul
claimed that he and others were able to interpret messages delivered
in an "unknown tongue." 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 19602
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
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 glossolalia. The two types of verbal
abnormalities are often linked together because the Bible is 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.
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.
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 structure.
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 incporate 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
probably 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 it being any sort
of language, that is pure nonsense - it is gibberish." A Teenage Mutant
Ninja Turtle could not have put it any better.
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