Boom-shakalockalocka--boom shakalockalocka—ramalama ding dong—fee  fee-fy fy-fo fo fum—na na nana, na na nana hey hey hey—doowahdidhe—sha la la--day o umba day o mambu ji ay o--Iko iko, iko iko unday Jockomo feeno ah na nay Jockomo feena nay.

Even though Sly and the Family Stone or Dennis Edwards might come to mind—you don’t know these
songs and neither does anyone else. No, they are not some catchy Motown vamp or slick background in a doo-wop song—they are words.

Knowing that they are not part of a song but words, might make them seem like a bunch of nonsensical utterances, but not to charismatic Christian groups. It is called the “Gift of Tongues.” The gift of tongues gives some people the ability to speak in a language that others do not understand. In order to communicate, another person must possess the gift of interpreting tongues to translate the spoken “words” to others.

Scientifically, this phenomenon is “glossolalia.” Often “speaking in tongues” is accompanied by “holy dances” and what is commonly known as “falling out,” or being “overcome” by the spirit. To a majority of outsiders, the “words” spoken by those speaking tongues sound curiously like parts of songs and repetitious half-formed words.

Is there anything to this holy phenomenon? According to Dr. William T. Samarin, professor of anthropology and linguistics at the University of Toronto, glossolalia consists of strings of meaningless syllables made up of sounds taken from those familiar to the speaker and put together more or less haphazardly.[1],[2]

“Glossolalia is language-like because the speaker unconsciously wants it to be language-like. Yet in spite of superficial similarities, glossolalia fundamentally is not language,” Samarin said.

Perhaps, the “gotcha” in this spewing of gibberish is that only one with faith and the gift of interpretation is capable of deciphering the meaningless utterances, leaving a gaping hole for imagined” interpretations that seem to support the basic beliefs of the religious community.

There is a great deal of duplication in glossolalia. As a mini experiment, try reciting a large series of numbers haphazardly, or try to ‘speak in tongues’ by producing rapid, random speech. Chances are you will produce some sequencing and repetition. These factors support the idea that glossolalia is a conscious and artificial behavior.[3]

The same behavior is on display in every nightclub, joint or dump where live music plays and people participate in dancing, singing and generally, having a good time. On Sundays the only thing missing is cigarette smoke.

The bottom-line, “speaking in tongues” is not language any more than scat singing. It has as much meaning as Sly and the Family Stone’s boom-skakalockalocka or Jeffrey Osborne’s Woo-Woo song.

[1] The Skeptic’s Dictionary, Robert T. Carroll, glossolalia,

[2] Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 2006, Vol. 148, No. 1, 22, pp. 67-71

[3] The Naked Skeptic, Singing in Tongues, Karen Stollznow,

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Comment by Two Cult Survivor on October 24, 2012 at 6:22pm

By the way, it would be improper to refer to glossolalia as gibberish, technically speaking. Gibberish makes no effort to sound like a language, and the linguists who study glossolalia routinely reject anything that sounds like the faker... excuse me, the tongues-speaker isn't even trying. What linguists are interested in when they study this appears to be human creativity. They don't take the search for an actual language very seriously at all.

So gibberish, while correct in the sense of being meaningless sounds, is incorrect in that it implies something that doesn't even sound like it's trying to be a language.

Comment by Donald R Barbera on October 23, 2012 at 10:26pm
It is amazing the things we can be persuaded into believing, especially by ourselves.
Comment by Two Cult Survivor on October 23, 2012 at 5:07pm

Man, we took it SO seriously. We really and truly believed we were producing a foreign language. After a while, it was tongues of angels (to explain why none of us was producing a human language). Ultimately, it was dead languages and other excuses... anything to make a testable premise untestable. I actually called BS on myself three years before I decided I could no longer call myself a Christian.

Comment by Donald R Barbera on October 23, 2012 at 4:23pm
Two Cult--I was about 8-years-old when I saw it for myself. Since I was a Catholic I'd never heard of it or seen it. I was with a friend that went to that particular church and we both broke out in laughter and we were later chastised for our behavior. Fifty years later, it is still low comedy and how anyone believes such nonsense is beyond me. As a musician who often played in Pentecostal churches, we tried to play music that would produce what we called "fall out" which was grown men and women falling to the floor spouting gibberish. If I were to call it anything, I'd call it "America's Got Talent."
Comment by Two Cult Survivor on October 23, 2012 at 10:41am

An accurate if cursory blog post. Samarin's work is outstanding.

The truth is that glossolalia is pitched to the faithful as a genuine foreign language that is spoken but not understood by the speaker. There is a possibility raised that it may be the "tongues of angels," but the expectation is that it's going to be a known human language. Speakers are frequently (typically) introduced to the practice by the use of doctrinal instruction followed by strong, social reinforcement. They are encouraged to speak and "let the spirit give the utterance." In other words, don't think about what you're saying. Just say it.

Subconsciously, the speaker WANTS it to be a language. So guess what? He will do his best to make it sound like a language. He will vary his syllables, modify his tone, pause for "commas" and "periods." To the untrained ear, it may genuinely sound like a language.

Once the speaker begins, he is frequently discouraged from doubting what he has done. (You know that little voice in your head, the one with integrity that lets you know you made it up? Yeah, that gets shut down immediately by the suggestion that ol' splitfoot is trying to talk you out of the contact you just made with God).

This kind of socially reinforced mutual self-deception has a real bonding effect in the church.

Only after the initiation, and hopefully after a lengthy period of practice (people get better at this as they do it more -- more "fluent," as it were), is the fact that you may not really be producing a foreign language addressed. Suddenly, "tongues of angels" becomes a whole lot more common. Genuine foreign languages are treated as undiscoverable (the likelihood is that you're speaking something not even a team of trained linguist can identify). In essence, a practice that is described in the Bible as objective and independently verifiable becomes quite subjective and utterly UNverifiable.

What's really being done is, as described in the blog post, very similar to what free vocalists do in music. The difference is that in music, there is no pretense of linguistic meaning. In glossolalia, there is.

But Samarin and other linguists who study it uniformly state that glossolalia has never produced a known, foreign language. And it never can, for obvious reasons.

If it did happen, I'd kind of have to resign from this message board/community. ;)

Comment by Richard K. Emms on September 29, 2011 at 2:16pm
Really, I don't think it would need to be Klingon.  My experience with the "tongue speakers" is that they can barely speak English.  I think German, Tagaolg, or Viet Namese would work just fine.
Comment by Loren Miller on September 29, 2011 at 9:43am
Of course, the REAL fun would be to break out of it in the middle and say, "Gad ... haven't ANY of you seen Star Trek III?!?  SHEESH!"
Comment by Donald R Barbera on September 29, 2011 at 9:07am
Loren--I've often thought the same. I see it as good clean fun, but you know the religious type would be in the "spirit" of things.
Comment by Loren Miller on September 29, 2011 at 9:00am
Personally, I would LOVE to study Conversational Klingon, then go into a pseudo-fit in front of those guys, spouting grammatically correct Klingon all through it!  Might be good for a laugh.

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