This is a copy of a posting I made on the Linguist List.
This is a summary of my query on speaking in tongues of a month back.
I posted three queries on various matters about simultaneously, and
this was by far the one which generated most correspondence!
The original query:
has anyone studied or systematically recorded what people actually
produce when they “speak in tongues” — at revival meetings and such
occasions? A friend of mine noted that the sounds produced tend to sound
remarkably alike each other.
In addition to various studies and papers there seems to be or to have been
two major researchers in the area: Felicitas Goodman, and William Samarin;
Goodman using an anthropological method and Samarin a linguistic one.
They both published in the seventies.
Thanks to all who responded with comments, notes, references:
Rich Alderson, Keith Allan, Jeffrey Howard Allen, Jose R. Alvarez,
Susan Burt, Steve Chandler, Linda Coleman, Ellen Contini-Morava,
Alan Davies, Patricia Donegan, Brian Drayton, Sheila Embleton,
Anthea F Gupta, Jacques Guy, Stephen Helmreich, Wayne Leman,
Wenchao Li, Mark Mitton , David L. Moore, Tim Pulju, J. A. Rea,
Malcolm Ross, Dale Russell, Deborah Sweeney, Shana Walton, and
some who preferred not to be named.
List of references:
I received the following references, most of which I have
not yet dug out.
Goodman, Felicitas (1969). Phonetic Analysis of Glossolalia in
Four Cultural Settings. Journal for the Scientific Study of
Goodman, Felicitas (1972). Speaking in Tongues. A Cross-Cultural
Study of Glossolalia. The University of Chicago Press.
Samarin, William (1972a). Tongues of Men and Angels. The
Religious Language of Pentecostalism. The Macmillan Company.
Samarin, William (1972b). Variation and Variables in Religious
Glossolalia. Language in Society 1:121-130.
Samarin, William (1973). Glossolalia as Regressive Speech.
Language and Speech 16:77-89.
Samarin, William (1974). Review of Goodman (1972). Language
Malony H.N. & Lovekin A.A. 1985. Glossolalia, New York, Oxford University
Dilia Flores. Analisis y Comparacian de Hablas Sagradas en Tres Formas de
Trance-Posesian: Un Estudio en Etnografia de la Comunicacion. Universidad
del Zulia, 1987. A study of glossolalia and related phenomena in Maracaibo,
_Tongue Speaking_, Morton Kelsey (New York: Crossroad, 1981).
_They Speak With Other Tongues_, by John L. Sherrill
(Westwood, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell, 1964), a popular treatment.
_The Pentecostal Movement in the Catholic Church_ by Edward D. O’Connor
(Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press,
1971) claims cases of xenolalia (speaking in an unlearned, existing language).
And a recommendation to perform a library search for
Donald Clarence Laycock
which might uncover a few things on glossolalia.
Fuller information, from the replies sent to me:
Basically, the finding was 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.
And yes, the inventory of sounds is very simple and the sequence is
As a former church-goer myself who believed I had the ability to speak
in tongues, I used to wonder a lot about the repetitive (and
‘primitive’?) nature of the sounds that I produced and heard from others
around, and also at the way people within a particular church tended to
sound like one another (but slightly different from people attending a
different church)… a case of unconscious ‘copying’?
I was told by one observer that I keep my British accent when I sing in
tongues; other people tell me this is not so. To my own ears, the sounds I
produce are not like any language I know but they do occur in recurring
patterns. I think they have predominantly l’s, s’s and vowels.
The most articulate (as distinct from hagiographic) evaluation I received was
that there are two continental charismatic traditions – a French one
concentrating on melodious spontaneous song and a German/English one
concentrating on speech.
I wanted to share my own experience: an old
Quaker minister (from a very old-fashioned meeting which had come under the
influence of pentecostalism) came on a religious visit to our area and spent
the night at our house. During a period of prayer in my living room, he
spoke in tongues. I had never heard such a thing before, except in
imitation, and I was impressed by the monotony of it. I can’t make this
machine do a phonetic transcription, but it was ( in a very quiet sing-song)
something like /’a: ‘tikari’ka: ‘tika ti’ka: ti’ka: / and then repeated (the
‘ = primary stress).
The Shakers, a dying sect here known for their ecstatic group dancing and
singing, incorporated “tongues” into many of their songs, in stylized form,
and there were relatively few syllables used there as well — ba, lo, ta, ti,
ka, la and a few others.
For a short answer, dredged out of my memory (I wrote my undergraduate
honors paper on this topic in 1973!): glossolalia is not a language,
of course–its users seem to latch onto and them repeat sounds
that sound foreign to them, and intersperse the name Jesus in
between the sounds–at least this was the case with glosslalia
produced by American English speakers that I heard. Jesus was
pronounced, as I recall, as in English. Many glossolalia users,
however, THINK that they are speaking another human language, and
will eagerly press this point to the visiting linguist, anthropologist
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.
Anecdotally, when I was an undergrad, one of my professors mentioned having
seen a study or two on glossolalia. The studies indicated that the phoneme
inventory was always quite small, smaller than that found in practically any
natural language. Maybe even smaller than the Hawaiian inventory of thirteen
phonemes, although my professor didn’t go into details.
My professor was a fundamentalist Christian herself as well as an excellent
linguist. She did believe that glossolalia was, at least in some cases, an
inspired state and that people in that state were often speaking genuine
languages. However, they weren’t natural human languages. My professor
pointed out that there was no reason to assume that they would be natural
human languages, that people could speak in heavenly tongues which are
meaningless to those on earth but which do have meaning, even if earthly
people can’t understand them.