AskDefine | Define glossolalia

Dictionary Definition

glossolalia n : repetitive nonmeaningful speech (especially that associated with a trance state or religious fervor)

User Contributed Dictionary




  1. Speaking in tongues; speaking a language one does not know, or speaking elaborate but apparently meaningless speech, while in a trance-like state.
  2. Xenoglossy.

Usage notes

  • Some writers distinguish glossolalia from xenoglossy, taking the former to mean roughly "speaking a language one does not know" and the latter to mean roughly "knowledge of a language one has never learned". Others do not distinguish the two, using the terms interchangeably or using one term exclusively. When in doubt, it may be preferable to preserve this distinction, and/or to explain what one means when using each term.

Extensive Definition

Glossolalia is commonly called "speaking in tongues". For other uses of "speaking in tongues", see Speaking in Tongues (disambiguation).
"Tongues" redirects here. For the body part, see Tongue, for other uses, see Tongue (disambiguation).
Glossolalia (from Greek γλωσσολαλιά and that from γλῶσσα - glossa "tongue, language" and λαλεῖν (lalein'') "to talk") is the vocalizing of fluent speech-like but unintelligible utterances, often as part of religious practice. Its use (including use in this article) sometimes also embraces Xenoglossy - speaking in a natural language that was previously unknown to and that is not understood by the speaker.
Frederic William Farrar first used the word glossolalia in 1879. .

Christian practice

In contrast to glossolalia, the Christian scriptures describe the ability to communicate to others (from other places) in languages previously not studied.

New Testament

In the New Testament, the book of Acts recounts how "tongues of fire" descended upon the heads of the Apostles, accompanied by the miraculous occurrence of speaking in languages previously unknown to them, but recognizable to others present as their own native language.
The phenomenon described in the Book of Acts (2:1-11) is variously interpreted either as religious xenoglossia, the speaking of an actual foreign language, or as the gift of interpretation being given to those present: the ability to understand the tongues (each person in his own language).
Some of the Orthodox hymns sung at the Feast of Pentecost, which commemorates this event in Acts, describe it as a reversal of what happened at the Tower of Babel as described in Genesis 11. In other words, the languages of humanity were differentiated at the Tower of Babel leading to confusion, but were reunited at Pentecost, resulting in the immediate proclamation of the Gospel to people who were gathered in Jerusalem from many different countries.
The Apostle 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). He further claims himself to speak with tongues more than all of the church at Corinth combined, though indicates more value is found in short, understandable teaching (1 Cor 14:18-19). Paul discourages simultaneous speaking in tongues in the presence of unbelievers or the unlearned; believers are to prophecy and be understood rather than speak unintelligibly. As 1 Corinthians 14:22-25 says, "Wherefore tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not: but prophesying serveth not for them that believe not, but for them which believe. If therefore the whole church be come together into one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those that are unlearned, or unbelievers, will they not say that ye are mad? But if all prophesy, and there come in one that believeth not, or one unlearned, he is convinced of all, he is judged of all: And thus are the secrets of his heart made manifest; and so falling down on his face he will worship God, and report that God is in you of a truth." In 1 Cor 12:7-11 and 1 Cor 12:28-30 some find that Paul indicates that not all believers speak in tongues, although some state that Paul was talking about a gift of "diverse tongues", not all tongues, as the gift of "faith" is also here mentioned, and all believers must have faith by definition. There are some who believe that many followers have the ability to speak in tongues (Mark 16:16-17) as a form of prayer, based on 1 Cor 14:14, Eph 6:18 and Jude 20. Paul also refers to the prophecy of speaking in tongues written by Isaiah (Isa 28:11-12).
Some connect this prophecy in Isaiah with Christ's promise of "rest" (Matthew 11:28-30), thereby stating that speaking in tongues was the sign of conversion, or spirit baptism. Following Christ's description of "the new birth" (John 3), that "you hear the sound" of the spirit, some state that this was the evidence to which the apostle John was referring in 1 John 4, to tell believer and unbeliever apart.
Biblical descriptions of persons actually 'speaking in tongues' occur three times in the book of Acts, the first two coupled with the phenomenon of the Baptism with the Holy Spirit, and the third with the laying on of hands by Paul the Apostle (at which time they 'received the Holy Spirit'), which imbued them with the power of the Holy Spirit.

Church History (A.D. 30 to 1900)

Twentieth-century Pentecostalism was not the earliest instance of "speaking in tongues" in church history; rather, there were antecedents in several centuries of the Christian era, e.g.
  • 150 AD - Justin Martyr wrote “For the prophetical gifts remain with us, even to this present time.” and “Now, it is possible to see amongst us women and men who possess gifts of the Spirit of God;”
  • 156-172: Montanus and the women that followed him - Maximilla and Priscilla - were speaking in tongues and were trying to prove that they were true prophets. For this purpose they used a list with prophets from the times of the New Testament. But anti-montanists declared that no prophet ever had such attitude and that Montanists were moved by the spirit of deception.
  • 175 AD - Irenaeus in his treatise Against Heresies speaks (positively) of those in the Church "who through the Spirit speak all kinds of languages."
  • circa 230 AD - Novatian said, “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.”
  • After the 1st, or 2nd century there is no record of "speaking in tongues" in any Eastern Orthodox source.
  • circa 340 AD - Hilary of Poitiers wrote, “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.”
  • circa 390 AD - Augustine of Hippo, in an exposition on Psalm 32, discusses a phenomenon contemporary to his time of those who "sing in jubilation", singing the praises of God not in their own language, but in a manner that "may not be confined by the limits of syllables" .
  • 1100s - Franciscan order of monks.
  • 1100s - Hildegard of Bingen is reputed to have spoken and sung in tongues. Her spiritual songs were referred to by contemporaries as "concerts in the Spirit."
  • 1300s - The Moravians are referred to by detractors as having spoken in tongues. John Roche, a contemporary critic, claimed that the Moravians "commonly broke into some disconnected Jargon, which they often passed upon the vulgar, 'as the exuberant and resistless Evacuations of the Spirit'" .
  • 1600s - The French Prophets: The Camisards also spoke sometimes in languages that were unknown: "Several persons of both Sexes," James Du Bois of Montpellier recalled, "I have heard in their Extasies pronounce certain words, which seem'd to the Standers-by, to be some Foreign Language." These utterances were sometimes accompanied by the gift of interpretation exercised, in Du Bois' experience, by the same person who had spoken in tongues.
  • 1600s - Early Quakers, such as Edward Burrough, make mention of tongues speaking in their meetings: "We spoke with new tongues, as the Lord gave us utterance, and His Spirit led us" .
  • 1817 - In Germany, Gustav von Below, an aristocratic officer of the Prussian Guard, and his brothers, founded a charismatic movement based on their estates in Pomerania, which may have included speaking in tongues.
  • 1800s - Edward Irving and the Catholic Apostolic Church. Edward Irving, a minister in the Church of Scotland, writes of a woman who would "speak at great length, and with superhuman strength, in an unknown tongue, to the great astonishment of all who heard, and to her own great edification and enjoyment in God" . Irving further stated that "tongues are a great instrument for personal edification, however mysterious it may seem to us."
  • 1800s Sidney Rigdon will have disagreements with Alexander Campbell regarding speaking in tongues. In 1830 leaves Campbell's movement and joins the Church of Christ (which will become the Latter Day Saint Tradition Churches). The Church of Christ embraces speaking in Tongues and the Interpretation of tongues. At the 1836 dedication of the Kirtland Temple the dedicatory prayer asks that God grant them the gift of tongues and at the end of the service Elder Young speaks in tongues, another elder interprets it and then gives his own exhortation in tongues. Many other worship experiences in the Kirtland Temple prior to and after the dedication included references to people speaking and interpreting tongues. In 1842 in describing the beliefs of the church Joseph smith will identify a belief of the "gift of tongues" and "interpretation of tongues".

Outbreak of Glossolalia, 1901 to 1906

The modern Christian practice of glossolalia is often said to have originated around the beginning of the twentieth century in the United States at the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles, California on April 14, 1906 Azusa Street Revival (Encyclopedia of Evangelicalism - Randall Balmer - Baylor University Press) The city of Topeka, Kansas is often cited as the center of the Pentecostal movement and the resurgence of glossolalia in the Church. Charles Fox Parham, a holiness preacher and founder of Bethel Bible College in 1900, is given the credit to being the one who influenced modern Pentecostalism. During what has been called a sermon by Parham, a bold student named Agnes Ozman asked him for prayer and the laying on of hands to specifically ask God to fill her with the Holy Spirit. This was the night of New Year's Eve, 1900. She became the first of many students to experience glossolalia, coincidentally in the first hours of the twentieth century. Parham followed within the next few days, and before the end of January 1901, glossolalia was being discussed in newspapers as a sign of the second advent of Pentecost.
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.


Further reading

glossolalia in Danish: Tungetale
glossolalia in German: Zungenrede
glossolalia in Modern Greek (1453-): Γλωσσολαλιά
glossolalia in Spanish: Glosolalia
glossolalia in Esperanto: Glosolalio
glossolalia in French: Glossolalie
glossolalia in Korean: 방언 (종교)
glossolalia in Indonesian: Glossolalia
glossolalia in Interlingua (International Auxiliary Language Association): Glossolalia
glossolalia in Italian: Glossolalia
glossolalia in Hebrew: גלוסולליה
glossolalia in Lithuanian: Glosolalija
glossolalia in Dutch: Glossolalie
glossolalia in Japanese: 異言
glossolalia in Norwegian: Tungetale
glossolalia in Norwegian Nynorsk: Tungetale
glossolalia in Polish: Glosolalia
glossolalia in Portuguese: Glossolalia
glossolalia in Russian: Глоссолалия
glossolalia in Simple English: Glossolalia
glossolalia in Slovak: Glosolalia
glossolalia in Finnish: Kielilläpuhuminen
glossolalia in Swedish: Tungomålstalande
glossolalia in Chinese: 說方言 (宗教)
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