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Glossolalia is the utterance of what appears to be either (to the casual listener) an unknown foreign language or simply nonsense syllables; the utterances are made sometimes as part of religious worship (religious glossolalia), and sometimes as a result of mental illness.

Some Christians (see below) hold glossolalia to be a gift of God through the Holy Spirit. They define glossolalia as divinely-inspired language. Other religions also use glossolalia as a part of worship.

From a linguistic point of view, the syllables that make up instances of glossolalia typically appear to be unpatterned reorganizations of phonemes from the primary language of the person uttering the syllables; thus, the glossolalia of people from Russia, Britain, and Brazil all sound quite different from each other, but vaguely resemble the Russian, English, and Portuguese languages, respectively. Most glossalia is generally regarded by linguists as lacking any identifiable semantics, syntax, or morphology--i.e., nonsense and not language at all.

Christian view of speaking in tongues

Tongues in the New Testament

In the New Testament, in the book of Acts, "tongues of fire" are said to have descended upon the heads of the Apostles, accompanied by the miraculous occurrence of speaking in languages unknown to them, but recognizable to others present as particular foreign languages. The words that they said could be understood not only by their peers, but also anyone else in the room who spoke any other language. It was described as a miracle of universal translation.

This is sometimes described as religious xenoglossia[?], i.e., miraculously speaking in an actual foreign language that is unknown to the speaker. Many conservative Pentecostal Christians maintain that if the glossolalia is not an actual human language, then it is not a genuine manifestation of the Holy Spirit.

Some Christians have claimed that they have witnessed, or personally engaged in, what is known as "speaking in tongues". These claims are central to the Pentecostal and Charismatic[?] traditions. The belief that the gifts of the Apostles (Acts 2) are present in the modern world is a fundamental point of Pentecostal doctrine.

Curiously, however, Christian fundamentalists in the last two centuries have developed a definition of this term that is the precise opposite of what is described in the New Testament. In instances where speaking in tongues is said to occur, observers tend to agree that no words are understood at all. Instead, witnesses report a stream of incoherent and meaningless syllables, which neither English speakers nor non-English speakers understand. This is the precise opposite of what is described in the New Testament, which seems to hold that speaking in tongues means speaking a language that all people can clearly understand.

Pentecostalists and some other religious adherents hold that this religious glossolalia is, at least in some cases, bona fide language inspired by the Holy Spirit, one unknown usually to both the speaker and the listeners. Some other Christians hold that that all, or almost all, modern glossolalia is bogus and neither divinely inspired nor language. It is much more common among Christians to believe that the original instances of glossolalia, as reported in the book of Acts, were bona fide instances of actual human languages.


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