Countdown to Christmas – Question 15: Sunday 15th December

It’s Sunday and a day of rest for many folks. For some, it’s also a religious occasion. And for Pentacostals, it may be an opportunity to indulge in “Speaking with Tongues,” a phenomenon where individuals are moved by an alleged supernatural force to articulate in an inspired – and unknown – language. But what is the scientific name for this?

Speaking in tongues

(a) Glossolalia
(b) Linguaphilia
(c) Lexiosynthesis
(d) Grammatologosia

ANSWER: glossolalia

From the Greek glossa meaning “tongue” or “language” and lalein meaning “to talk or prattle,” glossolalia is a type of fluent speech that is devoid of meaning. It sounds like language but turns out not to be. People tend to use their native phonology to create glossolalic utterances – so if you’re a native English speaker you are unlikely to use /ps/, /ts/, or /ks/ at the beginning of a syllable boundary, but if you are a native Greek speak, you will. In a classic study fron the 1970’s, William Samarin concluded that glossolalia is “unintelligible babbling speech that exhibits superficial phonological similarity to language, without having consistent syntagmatic structure and that is not systematically derived from or related to known language.” [1]

Links

Interesting article from a religious perspective. Holm, R., Wolf, M. and Smith, J.K.A. (2011). New Frontiers in Tongue Research: A Symposium. Journal of Pentacostal Theology, 20, 122-154.

Short video of an example of glossolalia – unfortunately titled [2]:

Notes

[1] Samarin, W.J. (1972). Variation and Variables in Religious Glossolalia:  Language in Society, ed. Dell Haymes, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pgs. 121-130.

[2] The example here is used because it’s brief and illustrates the point. The title of the video, “Crazy hat lady” is unfortunate because it’s linguistically ambiguous; does it means a lady wearing a crazy hat, or a hat-lady who is crazy? It also shows why hyphens are needed so we can work out if it’s a “crazy-hat lady” or a “crazy hat-lady.” It’s also wrong to insinuate she is crazy because many people of faith are quite sane and sincere people – just misguided in their belief in a non-existent supernatural being.

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