Speaking in Tongues: More Than Gibberish, Less Than Language

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The headquarters of the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) was about a two-minute drive from the office where I worked in downtown Fort Lauderdale. The foundation had, and still has, a longstanding challenge: a $1 million award to anyone who could demonstrate, under scientifically verifiable conditions, the existence of the supernatural.

At the time, I was a Bible-believing Christian who practiced speaking in tongues, the God-given ability to bring forth prayer and praise to God in a language I had never learned. How easy would it have been, I thought, to drive over to Randi’s office, speak in tongues in the presence of a linguist, have the linguist identify the language, and collect my check.

I never tried. I never even thought of trying. And there was a reason for it: deep down, in a reserved section of my heart that I never wanted to admit existed, I knew that I faked speaking in tongues. I faked it from the first time I did it, under the caring guidance of my Bible-believing roommate in the Bronx.


Unless they’ve done it, most atheists don’t understand speaking in tongues. They dismiss it as “bull” and “gibberish.” It’s not. It’s more than that. No, it’s not what believers claim it is. It’s not an earthly or extinct language. It’s not the language angels speak to each other in heaven. But it’s not “gibberish” either, and to understand that, you need to understand what gibberish is.

Simply put, gibberish doesn’t even pretend to be a language. Jazz scat is gibberish. It’s not intended to emulate real language. It’s babbling.

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Glossolalia, or speaking in tongues, typically does not meet this definition precisely because it is intended to emulate language. For this reason, linguists who have studied glossolalia are quick to distinguish it from gibberish.

In the 1960s, the linguist William Samarin offered a definition of glossolalia that is still accepted by other linguists today: “a meaningless but phonologically structured human utterance believed by the speaker to be a real language but bearing no systematic resemblance to any language, living or dead.”

He continues: “This definition specifies three features that appear to be necessary in any definition of the phenomenon. (a) a phonological structure (that is, the kind of patterning of sound generally typical of real languages), which distinguishes it from gibberish; (b) meaninglessness; and (c) value as language to the speaker.”

My one qualm about Samarin’s definition, from an objective standpoint, is that he begs the question by ruling out a genuine language as a possible outcome of speaking in tongues. Surely, if someone were to speak in tongues AND produce a real language, that would be quite remarkable (and worthy of the JREF award).
For my purposes here, I think the important thing to recognize is that there is a formal distinction between glossolalia and gibberish, and the two should not be confused.

Removing Samarin’s definition from its academic confines, the distinction is not hard to make. Gibberish doesn’t sound like language and isn’t meant to. Glossolalia does sound like language, and is meant to.

So how does one speak in tongues?

If you’re familiar with it at all, you’re familiar with a popular caricature of it. Countless videos in news reports and on YouTube show Pentecostals in the height of some ecstatic state, muttering what appear to be random syllables under the influence of the Holy Spirit. It is less likely that you have seen the more common exercise of this practice – a solemn, wholly unremarkable private experience indistinguishable from personal prayer.

I learned to speak in tongues in a quiet setting. It was just me and my roommate. He told me to relax. To take deep breaths. To trust God that it would be a language, even though I would not understand the words. My roommate told me that I would not be possessed, that I would not get hysterical, that I would not lose control of my muscle movements. I alone would determine when I would start speaking. I alone would determine when I would stop.

He spoke in tongues in front of me, to let me hear it, to relieve any sense of embarrassment I might feel, to show me we were brothers in Christ, in this together. I could do it as easily as he did.

Then it was my turn. I struggled to get the first sound out. Once I did, the rest of the sounds flowed with remarkable ease. I could not repeat the pattern of sounds if I wanted to. I never lost control. When I sensed a need to pause, as you would when reading aloud and encountering a comma or a period, I did so. As I spoke, my friend encouraged me: “You’re doing great. That’s fantastic. God is giving you the utterance. This is not just you. God is energizing you. You may think you’re faking it. You’re not. That’s the devil trying to talk you out of it. Don’t let him. Keep going. Fantastic.”

That’s not an exact quote, of course, but I am sure my roommate would be willing to acknowledge that the sentiments expressed are on the mark, especially the part about the devil trying to talk you out of it.

I cried when it was over. My friend knew I doubted the authenticity of what I had just experienced, and he countered that doubt expertly.

I did it! (No, I didn’t. Deep down I knew that). I convinced myself that this was, indeed, real. I spoke in tongues! “Isn’t God wonderful,” my roommate said when I finished.

Vern Poythress, a philosopher, theologian and New Testament scholar, never formally dismisses the notion that glossolalia can produce a real language. But in his research on the subject, he equates glossolalia with something he coins as “free vocalization.”

He writes:

“Free vocalization (glossolalia) occurs when (1) a human being produces a connected sequence of speech sounds, (2) he cannot identify the sound-sequence as belonging to any natural language that he already knows how to speak, (3) he cannot identify and give the meaning of words or morphemes (minimal lexical units), (4) in the case of utterances of more than a few syllables, he typically cannot repeat the same sound-sequence on demand, (5) a naive listener might suppose that it was an unknown language.”

Speaking in tongues, he goes on to say, is free vocalization practiced by a Christian in the context of worship.

The next part is where Poythress gets interesting. He writes:

Can the average person be taught to produce free vocalization?
Yes. Learning to free vocalize is easier than learning to ride a bicycle. As with the bicycle, the practitioner may feel foolish and awkward at first. But practice makes perfect. Moreover, though at first a person may feel self-conscious, after he has learned he may sometimes forget that he is doing it. It is something that he can start or stop at will without difficulty.
One easy way for a person to learn is to pretend that he is speaking a foreign language. He starts speaking, slowly and deliberately producing syllables. Then he speeds up, consciously trying to make it sound like a language would sound. Once he is doing well, he just relaxes and does not worry any longer about what comes out.

It doesn’t take a James Randi to recognize that Poythress is describing the exact method by which I learned to “speak in tongues.”

It gets better. He goes on to say:

He is told to open his mouth and let the “tongue” come out. Or perhaps he is told to begin by imitating a few lines spoken by a T-speaker. When he utters a few sounds, he is encouraged to do more. So in a little while he learns to free vocalize fluidly. (The social scientist tells us that that is to be expected.) He is told, “Yes, that’s it. You have received the baptism of the Holy Spirit.” If he says, “I seem to be doing it myself,” the “coach” replies, “That’s the devil trying to make you doubt the gift that God has given you.” And so he swells with pride in himself and thinks to himself, “I have become somebody great. I am no longer in the same category as ordinary Christians.”

Free vocalization, it must be stressed, is remarkably easy. The trick is, you may not be pre-thinking the exact sounds that come out of your mouth, but you do pre-think the quality of those sounds. That is, you know you want to produce a language, so you are not going to produce a repetitive series of blips and bleeps and goo-goo-ga-gas. You are not going to produce gibberish.

But you are not going to produce a language either, no matter what your preacher tells you. This is not a matter of lack of faith on my part – it’s a matter of lack of evidence on the part of those who assert that speaking in tongues produces a language.

It needs to be said straight out: The Bible teaches that the people who speak in tongues are speaking known human languages. The person speaking doesn’t know the language, but the person listening might. (Some Christians like to point out I Corinthians 14:2 as evidence that no one will ever understand a tongues speaker, but Acts 2 demonstrates this interpretation to be incorrect. Such an interpretation of I Cor. 14:2 also invalidates the frequent, uncorroborated anecdotal examples of people who speak in tongues only to find their words are understood by foreign visitors who just happen to be in attendance – these visitors usually promptly disappear and are never heard from again. Point is, you can’t have it both ways: either “no one understands,” ever, or the language can be understood by linguists who can identify foreign languages. The only reasonable interpretation of I Corinthians 14:2 is that it is speaking of the average episode of speaking in tongues, not laying down a hard and fast rule that shalt not be broken. Or that it’s hogwash. Take your pick).

The notion that speaking in tongues might produce some heavenly language is based on I Corinthians 13:1, the famous “Though I speak in tongues of men and of angels…” passage. While this is probably a Biblical example of hyperbole (what evidence is there that angels communicate with each other using words?), it is seized upon to explain why linguists never seem to be able to pick up the “languages” produced by those who speak in tongues.

It is, frankly, an application of the “God of the Gaps” style of reasoning. When no one knows better, the person speaking in tongues is speaking a foreign language. When someone familiar with languages is present, the person speaking in tongues is speaking an obscure language. Maybe a dead language. If all else fails, whip out the “tongues of angels” card.

That this would be true sometimes is predictable if those who speak in tongues are telling the truth. That this would be true in every single documented case of a linguist examining the phenomenon of glossolalia defies credibility.

Christians who claim to speak in tongues need to be told that they are making a testable claim. The claim has been tested, numerous times. And the tongues speakers have failed the test, every single time.

I know of at least one study underway of glossolalia speakers. In this study, the researchers are conducting a phonemic inventory, which will allow them to catalog the sounds coming from the speakers and match them to the phonemic inventories of known languages.

That’s a fancy way of saying there are vowel sounds, dipthongs and other sounds that are unique to each language, so the presence of a particular sound in a sample of glossolalia offers some ability to match it to a known language.

In previous cases, it’s been determined that the phonemic inventory of a tongues speaker typically matches his own language plus other languages to which the speaker has been exposed.

In other words, it’s all in the speaker’s head. To those who still speak in tongues, you’re no different than I. You want this to be real. You’ve convinced yourself it’s real. But you’re not looking up James Randi’s number. You won’t be applying for that $1 million prize, because you know. You’re improvising the sounds, but there is nothing about what you’re doing that cannot be explained in natural terms. The only reason it sounds like a language is that you want it to sound like a language. But it’s not. It’s meaningless. You’re not producing a language. You’re faking it, just like I was.

But you already know that.

Samarin: http://philosophy-religion.info/handouts/pdfs/Samarin-Pages_48-75.pdf
Poythress: http://www.frame-poythress.org/linguistic-and-sociological-analyses-of-modern-tongues-speaking-their-contributions-and-limitations/
Previous phonemic inventory findings: http://www.gmu.edu/org/lingclub/WP/texts/6_Heverly.pdf

About the author:
Two Cult Survivor, who prefers to remain anonymous for the time being, was born into a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses. His family stopped attending services when he was 12. He never made a conscious decision to leave the group, but he never returned to it. He became affiliated with The Way International, another pseudo-Christian cult, in 1988. He left the following year, but remained with a sympathetic offshoot until 1997. In 2001, he became an evangelical Christian in South Florida. He identified as atheist two years ago. You can find him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/twocultsurvivor.

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  • KaneHau

    Interesting article.

    This particular quote from the article…

    “Surely, if someone were to speak in tongues AND produce a real language, that would be quite remarkable (and worthy of the JREF award).”

    …gives me pause. The JREF award, as correctly pointed out in the article, is for proof of the supernatural. I don’t see where “speaking in tongues AND producing a real language” lands in that realm. Someone could easily have a natural gift for linguistics and manage to produce a language.

    In other words, I don’t see “spontaneous klingon” as being proof of any supernatural.

    • Great point. I def. agree with that. Thank you for reading 🙂

    • Two Cult Survivor

      No matter how talented one is at linguistics, I cannot imagine anyone producing a known language via free vocalization. If JREF refused to pay, they would rightly be disgraced.

  • There is also supposed to be someone present who can interpret the speaking in tongues for the rest of the community. I noticed there are lots who can speak in tongues but I’ve never met anyone who can interpret!

    • @cyebog

      Good point. Everyone speaks in tongues and no one can interprete. Yet they say god can understand all they are saying at the same time.
      This life is hard!

  • frankie bird

    Hey mom, went once to Charismatic mass and left after 5 minutes! Was just plain nuts! You where considered a failure if you couldn’t get up and “speak in tongues”, Felt like getting up and saying a few things they could interpret, but modesty and my natural shyness prevented it!! :)) Fruitloops, each and every one of them! Fx

    • That’s terrifying Frankie… I would feel so out of place.

  • Amy

    Hi. It feels so good to know I am not alone. I kinda doubt whether my tongues are really from God / the Holy Spirit. Because at one point I wanted to speak in tongues so badly, I prayed for it. I have seen in conferences how people just start praying in tongues and I thought that was interesting.

    So, what I did was observe what others did as they babble and blurt out those ‘words’. I followed as well, I tried to make out my own ‘language’ and in church, no one felt anything was odd! This means no one knows the difference between making up and ‘real tongues’

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