See J. P. Kildahl, The Psychology of Speaking in Tongues (1972); G. T. Montague, The Spirit and His Gifts (1974).
The Greek expression (in various forms) appears in the New Testament in the books of Acts and 1 Corinthians. 'Speaking in tongues' has been used at least since the translation of the New Testament into Middle English in the Wycliffe Bible in the 14th century. Frederic William Farrar first used the word glossolalia in 1879.
'Speaking in tongues' is given various meanings by various people that are dependent on their viewpoint. Those who consider the outward appearance of the phenomenon understand 'speaking in tongues' to be the glossolalia practised by some Christians; that is, it consists of utterances that approximate words and speech, rather than being words and speech. Others, usually Christians themselves, dispute that understanding of the practice and therefore dispute the meaning of 'speaking in tongues'; they may assert that when people 'speak in tongues' they "speak in languages which they have not learned (xenoglossia), perhaps the language of angels. Among such, what is spoken is understood to be a 'message from God', although some limit it to "prayer or praise".
Samarin found that glossolalic speech does resemble human language in some respects. The speaker uses accent, rhythm, intonation and pauses to break up the speech into distinct units. Each unit is itself made up of syllables, the syllables being formed from consonants and vowels taken from a language known to the speaker.
It is verbal behavior that consists of using a certain number of consonants and vowels[...]in a limited number of syllables that in turn are organized into larger units that are taken apart and rearranged pseudogrammatically[...]with variations in pitch, volume, speed and intensity.
[Glossolalia] consists of strings of syllables, made up of sounds taken from all those that the speaker knows, put together more or less haphazardly but emerging nevertheless as word-like and sentence-like units because of realistic, language-like rhythm and melody.
That the sounds are taken from the set of sounds already known to the speaker is confirmed by others: Felicitas Goodman found that the speech of glossolalists reflected the patterns of speech of the speaker's native language.
Samarin found that the resemblance to human language was merely on the surface, and so concluded that glossolalia is "only a facade of language". He reached this conclusion because the syllable string did not form words, the stream of speech was not internally organised, and - most importantly of all - there was no systematic relationship between units of speech and concepts. Humans use language to communicate, but glossolalia does not. Therefore he concluded that glossolalia is not "a specimen of human language because it is neither internally organized nor systematically related to the world man perceives".
On the basis of his linguistic analysis, Samarin defined Pentecostal glossolalia as "meaningless but phonologically structured human utterance, believed by the speaker to be a real language but bearing no systematic resemblance to any natural language, living or dead".
Practitioners of glossolalia may disagree with linguistic researchers and claim that they are speaking human languages (xenoglossia). For example Ralph Harris, in the work Spoken By the Spirit published by Radiant Life/GPH in 1973, recounts seventy five occasions when glossolalic speech was understood by others. (Scientific research into such claims is documented in the article on xenoglossia.)
This explanation was effectively refuted in 1969 by a team from the University of Minnesota, who conducted an extensive study covering the United States, Mexico, Haiti and Colombia; they reached practitioners among Pentecostals, other Protestant groups, and Roman Catholics.
Cutten's contentions concerning psychopathology, quoted and re-quoted through the years, have taken on an aura of fact among non-Pentecostal churchmen who are critical of the movement. His assumption that glossolalia is linked to schizophrenia and hysteria has not been supported by any empirical evidence.
Subsequent studies have confirmed this conclusion. A 2003 statistical study in the religious journal Pastoral Psychology concluded that, among the 991 male evangelical clergy sampled, glossolalia was associated with stable extroversion, and contrary to some theories, completely unrelated to psychopathology.
Our findings that glossolalia can be easily learned through direct instruction, along with demonstrations that tongue speakers can initiate and terminate glossolalia upon request and can exhibit glossolalia in the absence of any indexes of trance[...]support the hypothesis that glossolalia utterances are goal-directed actions rather than involuntary happenings.That glossolalia can be learned is also seen in the traces left behind by teachers. An investigation by the Lutheran Medical Center in Brooklyn showed that the influence of a particular leader can shape a group's glossolalia: where certain prominent glossolalists had visited, whole groups of glossolalists would speak in his style of speech.
At Pentecost there was a sound like a mighty rushing wind, "divided tongues like fire" rested on the apostles, they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak in languages previously unknown to them, but recognizable to others present as their own native language. Glossolalists and cessationists both recognise this as xenoglossia, a miraculous ability that marked their baptism in the Holy Spirit. Something similar took place on at least two subsequent occasions, in Caesarea and Ephesus.
The Apostle Paul instructed the church in Corinth about speaking in tongues in his discussion of the gifts of the Spirit in a letter to them. His purpose was to encourage them to value the gift, but not too highly; to practice it, but not abuse it. In the letter, although Paul commands church brethren, "Do not forbid speaking in tongues" (1 Cor 14:39), and that he wishes those to whom he wrote "all spoke with tongues" (1 Cor 14:5) and claims himself to speak with tongues more than all of the church at Corinth combined ("I thank my God I speak with tongues more than you all" 1 Cor 14:18). At the same time he discourages simultaneous speaking in tongues directed at people rather than God, lest unbelievers think the assembled brethren "mad" (1 Cor 14:23, 27). Tongues, says Paul, is speaking to God, rather than men, mysteries in the spirit (1 Cor 14:2), edifies the tongues-speaker (1 Cor 14:4), is the action of the praying of a person's spirit (1 Cor 14:14), and serves to bless God and give thanks (1 Cor 14:16-17).
Glossolalists and cessationists generally agree that the primary purpose of the gift of speaking in tongues was to mark the Holy Spirit being poured out on the church. At Pentecost the Apostle Peter declared that this gift, which was making some in the audience ridicule the apostles as drunks, was the fulfilment of the prophecy of Joel that God would pour out his Spirit on all flesh (Bible (King James)/Acts#Chapter 2).
Despite all this in common, there are significant variations in interpretation.
References to speaking in tongues by the Church fathers are rare. Aside from Irenaeus' 2nd-century reference to many in the church speaking all kinds of languages 'through the Spirit', and Tertullian's reference in 207 AD to the spiritual gift of interpretation of tongues being encountered in his day, there are no known first-hand accounts of glossolaia, and very few second-hand accounts.
What we do have are general remarks that Christ had given the gifts of the Spirit to the church, and that the gifts in general remained in the church.
For the prophetical gifts remain with us, even to this present time. (Justin Martyr, c.150)
Now, it is possible to see amongst us women and men who possess gifts of the Spirit of God. (Justin Martyr, c.150)The Fathers also recount the lists of gifts of the Spirit recorded in the New Testament.
This is He who places prophets in the Church, instructs teachers, directs tongues, gives powers and healings, does wonderful works, often discrimination of spirits, affords powers of government, suggests counsels, and orders and arranges whatever other gifts there are of charismata; and thus make the Lord’s Church everywhere, and in all, perfected and completed. (Novatian, c.200-c.258)
For God hath set same in the Church, first apostles…secondly prophets…thirdly teachers…next mighty works, among which are the healing of diseases… and gifts of either speaking or interpreting divers kinds of tongues. Clearly these are the Church’s agents of ministry and work of whom the body of Christ consists; and God has ordained them. (Hilary of Poitiers, 360)There is one instance of a Father apparently recording that he had heard some in the church speaking all kinds of languages through the Spirit:
In like manner we do also hear many brethren in the Church, who possess prophetic gifts, and who through the Spirit speak all kinds of languages, and bring to light for the general benefit the hidden things of men, and declare the mysteries of God. (Irenaeus, c.180)
Tertullian in an anti-heretical apologetic alludes to instances of the 'interpretation of tongues' as one among several examples of 'spiritual gifts' common enough in his day to be easily encountered and provide evidence that God was at work in the church:
Let Marcion then exhibit, as gifts of his god, some prophets, such as have not spoken by human sense, but with the Spirit of God, such as have both predicted things to come, and have made manifest the secrets of the heart; let him produce a psalm, a vision, a prayer -- only let it be by the Spirit, in an ecstasy, that is, in a rapture, whenever an interpretation of tongues has occurred to him; let him show to me also, that any woman of boastful tongue in his community has ever prophesied from amongst those specially holy sisters of his. Now all these signs (of spiritual gifts) are forthcoming from my side without any difficulty, and they agree, too, with the rules, and the dispensations, and the instructions of the Creator; therefore without doubt the Christ, and the Spirit, and the apostle, belong severally to my God. Here, then, is my frank avowal for any one who cares to require it. (Tertullian, c.207)
There were unorthodox movements that may have engaged in glossolalia. For example, Montanus was accused (by his opponents) of ecstatic speech that some have equated to glossolalia:
He became possessed of a spirit, and suddenly began to rave in a kind of ecstatic trance, and to babble in a jargon, prophesying in a manner contrary to the custom of the Church which had been handed down by tradition from the earliest times. (Eusebius, d.c.339)Their hostility to such a practice demonstrates that the mainstream (the anti-Montanists) regarded it as false, and would never have practised it. Indeed, "after the first or perhaps the second century, there is not record of it in any Orthodox source, and it is not recorded as occurring even among the great Fathers of the Egyptian desert, who were so filled with the Spirit of God thet performed numerous astonishing miracles, including raising the dead".
Chrysostom regarded the whole phenomenon of 'speaking in tongues' as not only something that was not practised in his own day, but was even obscure.
This whole phenomenon [of speaking in tongues] is very obscure, but the obscurity is produced by our ignorance of the facts referred to and by their cessation, being such then as used to occur but now no longer take place. And why do they not happen now? Why look now, the cause too of the obscurity hath produced us again another question: namely, why did they then happen, and now do so no more? (Chrysostom, 344-407)
Augustine of Hippo regarded speaking in tongues (that is, xenoglossia) as a gift for the apostolic church alone, and argued that this was evident from the fact that his contemporaries did not see people receiving that gift in their own day.
In the earliest times, "the Holy Ghost fell upon them that believed: and they spake with tongues", which they had not learned, "as the Spirit gave them utterance". These were signs adapted to the time. For there behooved to be that betokening of the Holy Spirit in all tongues, to shew that the Gospel of God was to run through all tongues over the whole earth. That thing was done for a betokening, and it passed away. In the laying on of hands now, that persons may receive the Holy Ghost, do we look that they should speak with tongues? Or when he laid the hand on infants, did each one of you look to see whether they would speak with tongues, and, when he saw that they did not speak with tongues, was any of you so strong-minded as to say, These have not received the Holy Ghost; for, had they received, they would speak with tongues as was the case in those times? If then the witness of the presence of the Holy Ghost be not given through these miracles, by what is it given, by what does one get to know that he has received the Holy Ghost? Let him question his own heart. If he love his brother, the Spirit of God dwelleth in him. (Augustine of Hippo, 354-430)
Glossolalists sometimes appeal to a sermon by Augustine of Hippo on Psalm 32 where he urged believers to 'sing in jubilation'. Whether speaking in tongues is involved is disputed.
For singers, either in the harvest, or in the vineyard, or in any other busy work, after they have begun in the words of their hymns to exult and rejoice, being as it were filled with so great joy, that they cannot express it in words, then turn from actual words, and proceed to sounds of jubilation. The jubilee is a sound signifying that the heart laboureth with that which it cannot utter...that the heart may rejoice without words, and the boundless extent of joy may have no limits of syllables.
Parham now found himself as the leader of the movement and traveled to church meetings around the country to preach [in the terminology of that era] about holiness, divine healing, healing by faith, the laying on of hands and prayer, sanctification by faith, and the signs of baptism of the Holy Ghost and Fire, the most prominent being speaking in tongues.
Word of the outpouring of the Spirit spread to other Holiness congregations. Parham wrote, studied, traveled, preached, and taught about glossolalia for the next few years. Parham and others who believed in or manifested tongues were persecuted from both inside and outside of the church. In 1905, he opened a Bible school in Houston. It was there that William J. Seymour became indoctrinated. It is notable that Seymour was black, and Parham was white. It is further notable that Seymour did not speak in tongues while in Houston.
When Seymour was invited to speak in Los Angeles about the baptism of the Holy Spirit in February 1906, he accepted. His first speaking engagement was met with dispute, primarily because he preached about "tongues" being a primary indication of the baptism of the Spirit, yet he did not himself speak in tongues. It was not until April that his preaching and teaching about glossolalia paid dividends, first to a man named Edward Lee, and later to Seymour. Similar to the experience of Parham in 1901, Seymour's students received the ability to speak in tongues a few days before he did.
By May 1906, indeed only one month after the Great San Francisco Earthquake which was seen as an "act of God", Seymour was leading a major movement of the Spirit known as the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles. It has been characterized as an inter-denominational, inter-racial, inter-sex Pentecostal revival during a time in the United States in which women and non-whites were not afforded the same civil rights as white men. People from many denominations and races gathered daily to see and hear, to preach and pray, to sing and shout, and to speak in new tongues. Newspapers, clearly biased against the movement, reported the happenings as a wild and weird group of mostly "colored" people acting as if they were pretty disturbed, exhibiting behavior unheard of in most Protestant churches of the time: intense shouting, vigorous jerking, dancing, passing out, crying, howling, emotional outbursts, and speaking gibberish. Many religious leaders in Los Angeles and other places were quick to disparage the goings on at Azusa Street, informing their flocks that the new Pentecostal movement was (at worst) sensational, Satanic, Spiritualism, and (at best) too overly focused on the Holy Spirit instead of Jesus Christ. The matter of glossolalia was then (as it is now) hotly debated within the Church as being either heresy or exemplary and necessary for a spiritual rebirth in Jesus Christ.
Witnesses at the Azusa Street Revival wrote of seeing fire resting on the heads of participants, miraculous healings in the meetings, and incidents of speaking in tongues being understood by native speakers of the language. According to the first issue of William Seymore's newsletter, "The Apostolic Faith," from 1906:
A Mohammedan, a Soudanese by birth, a [m]an who is an interpreter and speaks six[t]een languages, came into the meetings at Azusa Street and the Lord gave him messages which none but himself could understand. He identified, interpreted and wrote [a] number of the languages.
Some Christians practice glossolalia as a part of their private devotions; some accept and sometimes promote the use of glossolalia within corporate worship. This is particularly true within the Pentecostal and Charismatic traditions. Both Pentecostals and Charismatics believe that the ability to speak in tongues, and sometimes the utterance itself, is a supernatural gift from God.
Three different manifestations or forms of glossolalia can be identified in Charismatic / Pentecostal belief. The "sign of tongues" refers to xenoglossia, wherein one speaks a foreign language he has never learned. The "gift of tongues" or "giving a tongue" refers to a glossolalic utterance by an individual and addressed to a congregation of, typically, other believers. This utterance is believed to be inspired directly by the Holy Spirit and requires a natural language interpretation, made by the speaker or another person if it is to be understood by others present. Lastly "praying in the spirit" is typically used to refer to glossolalia as part of personal prayer.
The discussion regarding tongues has permeated many branches of the Christian Church, particularly since the widespread Charismatic Movement in the 1960s. Many books have been published either defending or attacking the practice. The issue has sometimes been a contributing factor in splits within local churches and in larger denominations. The controversy over tongues is part of the wider debate between conservative, evangelical Christians whose approach to the Christian Scriptures requires addressing the texts that endorse glossolalia. Within that debate are continuationists who believe that glossolalia has a role to play in contemporary Christian practice and cessationalists and dispensationalists who believe that all miraculous gifts, including glossolalia, were featured only in the time of the early church.
Glossolalia was exhibited by the renowned ancient Oracle of Delphi, whereby a priestess of the god Apollo (called the Pythia) speaks in unintelligible utterances, supposedly through the spirit of Apollo in her.
The Jewish religion has various citations of unintelligible speech beginning with the verse in Psalms 81:6 -
Various rituals and references exist about prayer of people not familiar with the holy language, and the importance of prayers said by people who only know how to mumble the words without understanding them.
In the 17th century it was said in the name of the Baal Shem Tov upon hearing the prayer of someone who instead of praising God who blesses the years (HaShonim) praised God who blesses the women (HaNoshim). He said that this person's prayers are the highest and holyest.
There are various texts and sayings to be read during the Jewish traditional prayers, which are either unintelligable or purposefully said in Aramaic, so as to reach directly to God without intervention of the angels, who speak the holy language of Hebrew.
Today there is a Hassidic sect of Jews who believe in the importance of repeating a citation "Na Nach..." for national and personal redemption.
It is interesting to note the texts to be recited during the Shavuot celebrations (original ceremony of Pentecost) must be read in the original Hebrew directly from the Bible, even if the person reading it does not understand the meaning.
Certain Gnostic magical texts from the Roman period have written on them unintelligible syllables such as "t t t t n n n n d d d d d..." etc. It is conjectured that these may be transliterations of the sorts of sounds made during glossolalia. The Coptic Gospel of the Egyptians also features a hymn of (mostly) unintelligible syllables which is thought to be an early example of Christian glossolalia.
In the nineteenth century, Spiritism was developed by the work of Allan Kardec, and the phenomenon was seen as one of the self-evident manifestations of spirits. Spiritists argued that some cases were actually cases of xenoglossia (from Greek,xenos, stranger; and glossa, language. When one speaks in a language unknown to him). However, the importance attributed to it, as well as its frequency, has decreased significantly. Some present-day spiritists regard the phenomenon pointless, as it does not convey any intelligible message to those present.
Glossolalia has even been postulated as an explanation for the Voynich manuscript.