A Linguist Looks at Glossolalia

GLOSSOLALIA, or speaking in tongues, is by now a familiar, if not a completely understood, phenomenon. Several years ago the average person would not have been aware of the meaning of the term glossolalia. Today, because of its widespread manifestation within and without the church walls, even the man in the street is conversant with the term. . .

-pastor of the University church, East Lansing, Michigan, and a doctoral candidate at Michigan State University at the time this article was written

GLOSSOLALIA, or speaking in tongues, is by now a familiar, if not a completely understood, phenomenon. Several years ago the average person would not have been aware of the meaning of the term glossolalia. Today, because of its widespread manifestation within and without the church walls, even the man in the street is conversant with the term.

Undoubtedly the last word has not yet been presented concerning speaking in tongues. It is interesting, however, to discover that serious scholars in various disciplines have taken enough interest in it to conduct meaningful research on the subject. Their findings have been published in learned journals and in book form for the general public to read. They have provided us with significant data that we can interpret in harmony with our particular perspective.

Speaking in Tongues 1 by Dr. Felicitas D. Goodman, a linguist, in my opinion is one of the most objective studies ever to be conducted on the subject of glossolalia. Recently I attended one of Dr. Goodman's lectures on the campus of Michigan State University. She stressed the main conclusions already arrived at in her published study, but amplified them by playing actual recorded glossolalia utterances and showing a motion picture of a Mexican congregation in an altered mental state. Dr. Goodman makes no value judgments. That is, she is not concerned about the phenomenon being "good" or "evil," "of God" or "of the devil." She endeavors to be as objective as possible, attempting to present glossolalia exactly as it looks and sounds to an unbiased observer.

For Dr. Goodman, glossolalia is dissociative behavior that culminates in vocalization. It is an altered state of consciousness accompanied by such kinetic behavior as lifting of the arms, shaking of the head, twitching in the face, as well as by visual and auditory hallucinations. Although there are mental patients whose vocal patterns resemble glossolalia (Spoerri in 1963 recorded several vocalizations of a 46-year-old chronic schizophrenic patient), Dr. Goodman maintains that glossolalia is not pathological. She views the glossolalist as being in an altered mental state, an altered state of consciousness. The subject is in dissociation, that is, divorced from ordinary reality, hyperaroused, in a trance.

Of special interest are Dr. Good man's views on how the induction of hyperarousal is accomplished. She points to three factors:

1. Cultural expectation. At one point during her field investigations she herself began to experience some of the symptoms of dissociation, but she observes: "I intentionally blocked subsequent occurrences. I needed at all times to be in complete command of all my faculties." 2 A neophyte is expected to go into a trance and does so in response to group pressure. It is important that we underscore the fact that Dr. Good man was able to avoid going into a trance herself by simply exercising her will power.

2. People can be taught to go into a trance. That it is a learned behavior was evident in the film Dr. Goodman showed us in which we saw the pastor of the Mexican church laboring with several neophytes. He repeated certain key phrases and gesticulations, which were imitated faithfully by the new parishioners. Eventually they were able to enter into the ecstatic experience with the rest of the group.

3. The trance can be consciously induced. Once the behavior is learned, body and mind can be prepared for it at will.

Of great concern to the students of glossolalia is whether or not the ecstatic utterances are intelligible languages. Dr. Goodman writes: "Glossolalia is lexically noncommunicative. The utterer of the glossolalia and his listener do not share a linguistic code. Rather, as Spoerri puts it: 'Glossolalia involves . . . the privation of the informative and communicative side of discourse; speech be comes musical sound.' " 3 Dr. Goodman's findings agree with those of other scholars on this question. Glossolalia does not involve the use of any known language. "What it does communicate," affirms Dr. Goodman, "is, initially, the commitment to the group and, later on, a sharing of its ritual behavior with all that this involves on the personal and social side." 4

There is a physiological aspect to glossolalia that constitutes the central point of Dr. Goodman's theory. She points out that "in epilepsy the cortex is driven by discharges from subcortical structures. I am proposing that some thing similar is happening during glossolalia. In some manner, the glossolalist switches off cortical control. Then, with considerable effort, at least initially, he establishes a connection between his speech center and some subcortical structure, which then proceeds to drive the former. Thereupon the vocalization behavior becomes an audible manifestation of the rhythmical discharges of this subcortical structure, which then proceeds to drive the former. Thereupon the vocalization behavior becomes an audible manifestation of the rhythmical discharges of this subcortical structure, resulting in the described pattern. The most striking characteristic of this discharge is the fact that it has a variable frequency and amplitude, producing one complete wave from onset over peak to decay in anywhere from perhaps two to six seconds or longer and amplitudes from ordinary speech variations in pitch up to an octave and a half. The latter seems to be something of a physiological constant." 5

This leads Dr. Goodman to attempt a definition of glossolalia: It is "a vocalization pattern, a speech automatism that is produced on the substratum of hyperarousal dissociation, reflecting directly, in its segmental and suprasegmental structure, neurophysiologic processes present in this mental state." 6

The Goodman study on glossolalia is one of the most complete to date. The theory advanced is plausible and certainly one that 1 do not find incompatible with my own personal convictions as a Seventh-day Adventist Christian. Scientific investigations, such as that carried out by Dr. Goodman, prove that the current outbreak of glossolalia is, from a Biblical point of view, spurious. The utterances are not languages, and the phenomenon is of such a nature that we may safely conclude, based on the abundant evidence brought forth by Dr. Goodman and others, that it is not an act of the Holy Spirit.

Is it, then, of the devil? There are a couple of observations made by Dr. Goodman that might help us to answer this question.

At one point during her study, she said: "There is something incredibly, brutally elemental about such an outbreak of vocalization, and at the same time something eerily, frighteningly unreal." 7 It would be unfair to conclude that Dr. Goodman means glossolalia is the work of some "evil power." As I said earlier, she is not concerned with such matters. Yet, unwittingly, she has provided us with at least a hint of evidence regarding the supernatural element of the phenomenon. Seen from our point of view, why would the out break of vocalization to which she refers appear "eerily, frighteningly unreal"? Given our belief in evil intelligences that are active in the affairs of man, would it not be reasonable for us to conclude that they could possibly act upon the glossolalist?

Dr. Goodman herself further states that during hyperarousal dissociation a "channel" is open through which the glossolalist receives stimuli from the outside world. She explains that it is a narrow channel and most of the stimuli are screened out, but that the person nevertheless remains "permeable to certain things." Let us bear in mind Dr. Goodman's observation that the trance is inducible. We are dealing here with something akin to hypnosis. I quote an important conclusion of another major study on the subject: "It is our thesis that hypnotizability constitutes the sine qua non of the glossolalia experience. If one can be hypnotized, then one is able under proper conditions to learn to speak in tongues. While glossolalia is not the same as hypnosis, it is similar to it and has the same roots in the relationship of the subject to the authority figure." 8

We see, then, that in both the glossolalic and the hypnotic trance the subject abdicates self-control of the mind and remains open to outside stimuli and control. Herein lies their greatest danger. The principalities, powers, world rulers of the present darkness, the "spiritual hosts of wickedness" against which we must struggle (Eph. 6:12, R.S.V.) take full advantage of the permeability of the subject and exert their malevolent influence during the sonnambulistic or hypnotic state.

None of the foregoing is in tended to preclude the possibility of the manifestation of the genuine gift of tongues in our day. We must not forget that Ellen G. White herself wrote: "It is with earnest longing that I look for ward to the time when the events of the day of Pentecost shall be repeated with even greater power than on that occasion. John says, 'I saw another angel come down from heaven, having great power; and the earth was lightened with his glory.' Then, as at the Pentecostal season, the people will hear the truth spoken to them, every man in his own tongue."—The SDA Bible Commentary, Ellen G. White Comments, on Acts 2:1-4, p. 1055. God is not about to with draw the gifts of the Spirit simply because Satan has gotten into the act!

What we need is wisdom from above to be able, by the grace of God, to distinguish between the genuine and the counterfeit. This spiritual discernment is perhaps the greatest of all the gifts, the most needed today, and one for which we ought daily to pray.


1. Dr. Felicitas D. Goodman, Speaking in Tongues (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972).

2. Ibid., pp. 72, 73.

3. Ibid., p. 123.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid., p. 124.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid., p. 15.

8. John P. Kildahl, The Psychology of Speaking in Tongues (New York: Harper and Row, 1972), pp. 54, 55.

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-pastor of the University church, East Lansing, Michigan, and a doctoral candidate at Michigan State University at the time this article was written

March 1974

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