I have heard glossolalia many, many times and much of it is meaningless,
childish, tongue clucking, to repetitive nonsensical chatter. Lots of
church services that I attended were interrupted by a member breaking out in
this type of utterance and interrupting the service. The denomination that
I attended now has many services broadcast on TV - including national TV, and
this type of thing is rarely shown on screen.
According to Dr.
William T. Samarin, professor of anthropology and linguistics at the University
glossolalia consists of strings of meaningless
syllables made up of sounds taken from those familiar to the speaker and put
together more or less haphazardly .... Glossolalia is language-like because
the speaker unconsciously wants it to be language-like. Yet in spite of
superficial similarities, glossolalia fundamentally is not language (Nickell,
When spoken by
schizophrenics, glossolalia are recognized as gibberish. In charismatic
Christian communities glossolalia is sacred and referred to as "speaking in
tongues" or having "the gift of tongues." In Acts of the
Apostles, tongues of fire are described as alighting on the Apostles, filling
them with the Holy Spirit. Allegedly, this allowed the Apostles to speak in
their own language but be understood by foreigners from several nations.
Glossolalics behave in
various ways, depending on the social expectations of their community. Some go
into convulsions or lose consciousness; others are less dramatic. Some seem to
go into a trance; some claim to have amnesia of their speaking in tongues. All
believe they are possessed by the Holy Spirit and the gibberish they utter is
meaningful. However, only one with faith and the gift of interpretation is
capable of figuring out the meaning of the meaningless utterances. Of course,
this belief gives the interpreter unchecked leeway in "translating"
the meaningless utterances. Nicholas Spanos notes: "Typically, the
interpretation supports the central tenets of the religious community" (Spanos,
Uttering gibberish that
is interpreted as profound mystical insight by holy men is an ancient practice.
In Greece, even the priest of Apollo, god of light, engaged in prophetic
babbling. The ancient Israelites did it. So did the Jansenists, the Quakers, the
Methodists, and the Shakers.
There is evidence that while
speaking in tongues people experience a sharp decrease in frontal lobe function,
the area of the brain that enables reason and self-control. There is also
increased activity in the parietal region of the brain, which takes sensory
information and tries to create a sense of self relating to the world.
Psychiatrist Andrew Newberg, Director of the Center for Spirituality and the
Mind at the University of Pennsylvania, studied five African-American
Pentecostal women who frequently speak in tongues. As a control activity,
Newberg had the women sing gospel tunes while moving their arms and swaying.*
Newberg gave the Pentecostals an
intravenous injection of a radioactive tracer that allowed him to measure blood
flow and "see" which brain areas were most active during the
behaviors. Newberg and his associates published their findings in the November
2006 issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging. During glossolalia, the
part of the brain than normally makes a person feel in control was essentially
shut down. The findings make sense, says Newberg, because speaking in tongues
involves giving up control and feeling a "very intense experience of how
the self relates to [a] god."*
Newberg noted that the glossolalia
responses were the opposite of those of people in a meditative state. When
people meditate their frontal lobe activity increases, while their parietal
activity decreases. In meditation, one loses the sense of self while controlling
one's focus and concentration.
The Pentecostal movement seems to
have originated in the 19th century, although the Biblical basis for the
practice is traced to the Acts of the Apostles. The practice of Pentecostals
differs, however, from what is described in Acts. Pentecostals utter gibberish
and claim that they are speaking in a language understood by some god but not by
other Pentecostals, but in Acts we are told that those present not only spoke
"with other tongues" but "every man heard them speak in his own
And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all
with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as
of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting.
And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon
each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to
speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. And there
were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven.
Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were
confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language.
And they were all amazed and marveled, saying one to another, Behold, are not
all these which speak Galileans? And how hear we every man in our own
tongue, wherein we were born? Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and
the dwellers in Mesopotamia, and in Judaea, and Cappadocia, in Pontus, and
Asia, Phrygia, and Pamphylia, in Egypt, and in the parts of Libya about
Cyrene, and strangers of Rome, Jews and proselytes, Cretes and Arabians,
we do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of [some] god. [Acts
This story is supposed to support
the notion that such an event really did occur and it was prophesied by Joel
that this kind of thing would happen in the last days. There is nothing in Joel,
however, that prophesied that, when the last days didn't come as predicted, plan
B would be to wait 1900 years and have a revival and claim that when you speak
gibberish it is a sign that some god loves you.