Research Paper: Glossolalia, or Speaking in Tongues

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Glossolalia, or speaking in tongues, is a vocalizing (sometimes writing) of speech-like syllables as part of religious fervor or practice. It is controversial, even among the religious; some consider it to be meaningless ramble brought on by a euphoric state, and others part of a holy language. The word itself is a compound of a Greek verb (lalein, to talk, ), and a noun (glossa, tongue or language, ). It appears as a phenomenon in the New Testament; specifically in Acts 2:4 ("they began to speak with other tongues," and in Corinthians 12:8-11 and 12:28-30 where the word appears in conjunction with the Greek word charisma, suggesting that these were gifts given by God to people who had transcended and were able to mentally touch the Divine (Wallace and Sawyer 2005 255).

Of course, one of the seminal concerns regarding the Biblical use of the word "tongues" is the dual and contextual meaning it had in Ancient Greek. The word glossa, in fact appears over 50 times in the Greek New Testament, and depending on the context and modifying words seems to refer more to what we would now term "foreign language," or even more simply "language." For instance, in Acts 2:26 the phrase, "my tongue was glad" likely meant "I was happy to say." Similarly in Mark 16:17 Jesus noted, "And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name they shall cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues." This has often been interpreted as justification for glossolalia, but could also mean that Jesus was predicting a world in which his words (Christianity) spread over the face of the earth to peoples speaking languages unheard of in the Biblical World. Even with 25 uses in Corinthians, one could easily interpret the use of tongues as a metaphor for making oneself understood to a new group -- that is either explaining the meaning of the Gospels to those who did not quite understand, or proselytizing to those who had no experience with the material.

From a scholarly point-of-view, even Christian scholarship, the term glossolalia occurs under five conditions:

A human produces a connected sequence of speech sounds.

Those sounds are not identifiable as belonging to any natural language that the individual knows or with which they are familiar.

It is impossible for the individual to translate the meaning or works or phrases.

Typically, if asked, the individual cannot repeat the same sound-sequence on demand.

A naive listener would think the utterances were of an unknown language (Poythress 1986).

Although the converse opinion does not necessarily contradict a communion with the Holy Spirit, it does note that anyone can use free vocalization to enter a state of euphoria, or be so transfixed with group psychology that they become entranced and placed in an altered state of reality. This phenomenon is also commonly seen in large crowds who are mesmerized by the speaker or event, or, "a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members' strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action (Janis 1972 9).

Indeed, because the religious experience is so deeply personal and unique, it is almost sacrosanct to suggest that an individual who claims they are "touched by the Holy Spirit" may simply be caught up in an alternate reality, which, quite possibly could be identical.

If we analyze the five places in the New Testament in which speaking in tongues is explicitly mentioned we find the following:

Reference

Passage

Commentary

Mark 16:17

These signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will drive out demons, they will speak new languages.

Some believe this is a mistranslation with the word "they," meaning the Apostles, not everyone, and it was the Apostles who could speak new languages in order to spread the word of Christ (Coffman 1999).

Act 2

And they were all filled with the holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues

To speak in different tongues: ecstatic prayer in praise of God, interpreted in Acts 2:6, 11 as speaking in foreign languages, symbolizing the worldwide mission of the church (Urick 2009 Chapter 4).

Acts 10:46

for they could hear them speaking in tongues and glorifying God

These were people from another land according to the apostles; tongues probably means foreign languages not understood (Dibelius and Hanson 2004).

Acts 19:6

And when Paul laid (his) hands on them, the holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.

The gift was to allow the faithful to travel throughout the world in order to preach -- without the gift of tongues, they could not make themselves be understood by other cultures (Ellis 1970).

1 Corinthians

12: 13

Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray to be able to interpret.

The charisma of interpretation lifts tongues to the level of intelligibility, enabling them to produce the same effect as prophecy (Heil 2005).

1 Corinthians 13:1

If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal

Witness issues of symbolism and personification. Here Paul does not state that he had tongues of angels, he stated "If" to give indication that he was only making the point about LOVE (Ibid.)

1 Corinthians 14:2

For one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to human beings but to God, for no one listens; he utters mysteries in spirit.

They involve two kinds of communication: tongues, private speech toward God in inarticulate terms that need interpretation to be intelligible to others (see 1 Cor 14:27-28); prophecy, communication with others in the community (Ibid).

The difference, then, between viewing tongues as another language and a gift from the Holy Spirit is apparent in Scripture. Paul says a tongue is speaking to and with God rather than men (1 Cor 14:2), and that it edifies the person actually speaking (1 Cor 14:4). However, there is also evidence in words like interpreter, foreign land, etc. that indicate what was meant was the sound of foreign language (1 Cor 14:27-28; Mueller, A Linguistic Analysis of Glossolalia 1981).

Textual Analysis- In modern Biblical translations, the phrase "speaking in tongues" began to appear in the 14th century in the Middle English translation of the Wycliffe Bible and in English vernacular by the late 1800s. The contemporary Christian concept of speaking in tongues comes from the Miracle of the Pentecost (Acts) in which the apostles were said to have been filled with the Holy Spirit (Mark 16:17 in Wycliffe, see: Noble 2001). According to tradition, fifty days after the crucifixion a group of believers were gathered in Jerusalem because Jesus had told them "that they should not depart from Jerusalem, but wait for the promise of the Father" (Acts 1:4). Many were also in the city to celebrate the festival of the Pentecost: "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" (Acts 2:2-4).

Word and Structural Analysis -- Unlike Biblical passages, the manner in which the term glossolalia appears in the Bible is generally part of a duality -- tongues meaning language and tongues meaning communion with the Holy Spirit. Historically, the term did not begin to be popular in the vernacular Bibles until past the Middle Ages (Aquinas 2008). For instance, Mark 16:17 in the Wycliffe Bible, "And these tokenes schulen sue hem, that bileuen. In my name thei schulen caste out feendis; thei schulen speke with newe tungis" (Wycliffe 2002). For a more contemporary approach, though, a prime example of late 19th century Christian writings in "The Early Days of Christianity" deals with the subject. In this work, Reverend Farrar notes: "Christianity had come into contact with Greek philosophy and Eastern Speculation. Men were no longer interested in such questions as whether they need be circumcised; or to what extend their consciences need be troubled by distinctions between clean and unclean metas; or whether they were to place the authority of James of Kephas above that of Paul; or what was the real position to be assigned to the gift of tongues…" (Farrar 1883 504).

Linguistic Analysis -- In the modern religious paradigm, speaking in tongues is often a part of certain Pentacostal ceremonies, thus allowing modern scholars to analyze it from a socio-linguistic point-of-view. One study took samples of "tongues" from public and private Christian ceremonies over the course of five years from several global locations. The results showed that glossolailic speech does have some patterns of resemblance to human language. For instance, the speaker typically uses accent, rhythm, intonation, and pauses to allow for a distinction of units. Each unit, in… [END OF PREVIEW]

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