Polyglossy - Xenoglossy - Glossolalia

When allegedly channeling an entity from somewhere other than this reality, channelers often find themselves going into a trace-like state and speaking in a language that is unknown to them. It may be an archaic language, one from a foreign country country. In this case the channeler is referred to as a Polyglot, one who speaks in many languages.

Xenoglossy is the putative phenomenon in which a person is able to speak a language that he or she could not have acquired by natural means. For example, a person who speaks German fluently and as a native would, but has never studied German, been to a German-speaking country, or associated with German-speakers, would be said to exhibit xenoglossy.

Xenoglossy has been used to support notions such as reincarnation on the assumption that retention of knowledge of the language from a previous life is the only way to account for it. The leading proponent of this idea is Ian Stevenson, a psychiatrist who has tried to present scientific evidence to support this assertion.

Linguist Sarah Thomason concluded from her analysis of the cases described by Stevenson that in all but one case the language knowledge displayed was minimal and could easily have been learned by casual exposure. In the one case in which she considered the subject's language knowledge to be non-trivial, that of a Marathi woman in Bombay who could speak Bengali, Thomason argues that the language could easily have been acquired by natural means: Bengali and Marathi are closely related languages, the woman had a life-long interest in Bengali language and culture and many Bengali acquaintances, and people in Bombay are exposed to Bengali in such contexts as the cinema since many films are made in Bengali.

The term xenoglossy is also used as a synonym for glossolalia with the meaning of speaking in a language that the speaker does not know.

Glossolalia comprises the utterance of semantically meaningless syllables. Glossolalia is claimed by some to be an unknown mystical language; others claim that glossolalia is the speaking of an unlearned foreign language. Glossolalic utterances sometimes occur as part of religious worship (religious glossolalia).

While occurrences of Glossolalia are widespread and well documented, there is considerable debate within religious communities (principally Christian) and elsewhere as to both its status - the extent to which glossolalic utterances can be considered to form language - and its source - whether glossolalia is a natural or supernatural Spiritual phenomenon.

"Speaking in tongues" in Christian Traditions

Glossolalia features both in Christian scriptures and in the practice of some contemporary Christians and Christian denominations. It is not, however, universally accepted either as God-inspired or as a relevant or legitimate Christian practice.

Tongues in the New Testament

In the New Testament, the book of Acts recounts how "tongues of fire" descended upon the heads of the Apostles, accompanied by the miraculous occurrence of speaking in languages unknown to them, but recognizable to others present as particular foreign languages. Not only their peers, but also anyone else in the room who spoke any other language, could understand the words that the Apostles spoke.

The Book of Acts (2:1) described the phenomenon in terms of a miracle of universal translation, enabling people from many parts of the world speaking many different languages to understand them. On the other hand, some commentators teach that this Biblical case exemplifies religious xenoglossia, i.e., miraculously speaking in an actual foreign language that the speaker does not know.

Some of the Orthodox hymns sung at the Feast of Pentecost, which commemorates this event in Acts, describe it as a reversal of what happened at the Tower of Babel as described in Genesis 11. In other words, the languages of humanity were differentiated at the Tower of Babel leading to confusion, but were reunited at Pentecost, resulting in the immediate proclamation of the Gospel to people who were gathered in Jerusalem from many different countries.

Elsewhere in the New Testament some scholars say Paul describes the experience as speaking in an "unknown tongue" In I Corinthians 14:2 The King James Version includes the word 'unknown', which is italicized indicating the word unknown does not appear in the original Greek manuscripts. Paul refers to tongues again in (1 Cor 14:14-19), known as theopneustic glossolalia. Although the Apostle Paul commands church brethren, "Do not forbid speaking in tongues" (1 Cor 14:39), and that he wishes those to whom he wrote "all spoke with tongues" (1 Cor 14:5) and claims himself to speak with tongues more than all of the church at Corinth combined ("I thank my God I speak with tongues more than you all" 1 Cor 14:18), Paul discourages simultaneous speaking in tongues directed at people rather than God, lest unbelievers think the assembled brethren "mad" (1 Cor 14:23, 27). Tongues, Paul claims, is speaking to God, rather than men, mysteries in the spirit (1 Cor 14:2), edifies the tongues-speaker (1 Cor 14:4), is the action of the praying of a person's spirit (1 Cor 14:14), and serves to bless God and give thanks (1 Cor 14:16-17).

Biblical descriptions of persons actually 'speaking in tongues' occur three times in the book of Acts, each time coupled with the phenomenon of the Baptism with the Holy Spirit or the laying on of the apostles' hands (cf. Acts 8:18).

Fundamental to Biblical interpretation is the appropriate transliteration of primitive terms, and just as the term "spirit" comes from "breath" or "vapour", the term "tongues of fire" is almost certainly a use of fire as a metaphor for markedly increased and radiant powers of speech during the Pentecost.

Tongues in Church History

Twentieth century Pentecostalism was not the earliest instance of "speaking in tongues" in church history. There were antecedents in several centuries of the Christian era, e.g.

Contemporary Christian Glossolalia

Some Christians practice glossolalia as a part of their private devotions and some sections of the Christian community also accept and sometimes promote the use of glossolalia within corporate worship. This is particularly true within the Pentecostal and Charismatic traditions. Both Pentecostals and Charismatics believe that the ability to speak in tongues, and sometimes the utterance itself, is a supernatural gift from God.

Three different manifestations or forms of glossolalia can be identified in Charismatic / Pentecostal belief. The "sign of tongues" refers to xenoglossia, in which listeners hear their native language spoken by those who have never learned it, by means of divine power. The "gift of tongues" or "giving a tongue" refers to a glossolalic utterance by an individual and addressed to a congregation of, typically, other believers. This utterance is believed to be inspired directly by the Holy Spirit and requires a natural language interpretation, made by the speaker or another person if it is to be understood by others present. Lastly "praying in the spirit" is typically used to refer to glossolalia as part of personal prayer. Both "giving a tongue" and "praying in the spirit" feature in contemporary Pentecostal and Charismatic practice.

Christians who practice glossolalia typically describe their experience as a regular and even mundane aspect of private prayer that tends to be associated with calm and pleasant emotions. This is in contrast to the perception of glossolalia amongst Christians who witness but do not practice glossolalia, and those who have no experience of glossolalia. Both tend to see speaking in tongues as a group activity associated with heightened emotion and excitement.

The Controversy about Modern Tongues

The claims of Pentecostals and Charismatics regarding Tongues has led to a serious and widespread controversy in many branches of the Christian Church, particularly since the birth of the Charismatic Movement in the 1960s. Many books have been published either defending or attacking their claims. The issue has often caused splits within local churches or in larger denominations. The controversy over tongues is sometimes part of the wider controversy between continuationists and cessationists, but sometimes due to differences of opinion regarding the biblical definition of tongues.

Glossolalia in Other Religions

Aside from Christians, certain religious groups also have been observed to practice some form of theopneustic glossolalia.

Glossolalia is evident in the renowned ancient Oracle of Delphi, whereby a priestess of the god Apollo (called a sibyl) speaks in strange utterances, supposedly through the spirit of Apollo in her, but possibly related to high levels of natural gas present in spring waters beneath the temple.

Certain Gnostic magical texts from the Roman period have written on them nonsense syllables like "t t t t t t t t n n n n n n n n n d d d d d d d..." etc. It is believed that these may be transliterations of the sorts of sounds made during glossolalia. The Coptic Gospel of the Egyptians also features a hymn of (mostly) nonsense syllables which is thought to be an early example of Christian glossolalia.

In the 19th century, Spiritism was developed into a religion of its own thanks to the work of Allan Kardec and the phenomenon was seen as one of the self-evident manifestations of Spirits. Spiritist argued that some cases were actually cases of Xenoglossia (when one speaks in a language unknown to him). However, the importance attributed to it, as well as its frequency, has since decreased significantly. Present-day spiritist regard the phenomenon pointless, as it does not convey any intelligible message to those present.

Glossolalia has also been observed in shamanism and the Voodoo religion of Haiti; it can often be brought on by the ingestion of hallucinogenic drugs or entheogens such as Psilocybe mushrooms.

Scientific Perspectives


The syllables that make up instances of glossolalia typically appear to be unpatterned reorganizations of phonemes from the primary language of the person uttering the syllables; thus, the glossolalia of people from Russia, the United Kingdom, and Brazil all sound quite different from each other, but vaguely resemble the Russian, English, and Portuguese languages, respectively. Many linguists generally regard most glossolalia as lacking any identifiable semantics, syntax, or morphology. Glossolalia has even been postulated as an explanation for the Voynich manuscript.


The first scientific study of glossolalia was done by psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin as part of his research into the linguistic behavior of schizophrenic patients. In 1927, G.B. Cutten published his book Speaking with tongues; historically and psychologically considered, which was regarded a standard in medical literature for many years. Like Kraepelin, he linked glossolalia to schizophrenia and hysteria. In 1972, John Kildahl took a different psychological perspective in his book The Psychology of Speaking in Tongues. He stated that glossolalia was not necessarily a symptom of a mental illness and that glossolalists suffer less from stress. He did observe, however, that glossolalists tend to have more need of authority figures and appeared to have had more crises in their lives.

Nicholas Spanos described glossolalia as an acquired ability, for which no real trance is needed (Glossolalia as Learned Behavior: An Experimental Demonstration, 1987). It is also known as a simplex communication.

Glossolalia Wikipedia