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, 108).

Glossolalia is fabricated, meaningless speech.

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.” 

It would appear then, that while the order and structure of the sounds that are uttered by those prone to glossolalia are not under conscious control, there is certainly a learned element to the phenomenon. The patterns of glossolalic speech are often shared among groups of speakers and are influenced, or ‘shaped’ by prominent speakers that interact with those groups.

Let’s start with what people feel. Those that practice glossolalia report  feeling as though the speaking is involuntary and is unconnected to other involuntary actions (like blinking, or breathing). They also experience euphoric or ecstatic states whilst practicing. Unfortunately for the skeptics, even scientists won’t support you if you call them crazy or delusional; a psychopathological explanation is unlikely, meaning it can’t be explained away by mental illness.

For now, I would suggest simply that glossolalic discourse be described as a human utterance apparently devoid of semantic meaning or syntax.

So undoubtedly, the produced sounds aren’t under conscious control but they are sounds that we are already familiar with. In addition, Nick Spanos and his colleagues persuasively demonstrated that glossolalia can be initiated and terminated on request by speakers. He, along with Mr. Newberg (from the brain scans) also showed us that it isn’t hypnosis or some kind of trance as some speakers tend to report. This
and those earlier findings have led to speculation that glossolalia is a learned behaviour, suggested separately by Spanos, Samarin and Ms. Hine from earlier. Spanos even taught some people how to ‘speak in tongues’, simply by showing them clips of people doing it. He suggested that it might be something learned by observing peers.

The definition of glossolalia depends very much on where you look. in the New Catholic Encyclopedia (1967) it is recorded as “a charisma that enables the recipient to praise God in miraculous speech.” According to the New Encyclopedia Britannica (1990) it is “a neurotic or psychotic symptom.” Seen anthropologically, it is one of the ways “man uses language when he practices religion” (Samarin 1972). Other phrases used are “tongue jabbering”, “meaningless neologisms” and “unintelligible words”. It would appear that the context within which the behaviour is observed significantly influences its definition.

Arcade Fire – Speaking in Tongues



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