Speaking in Tongues – SkeptiCamp Notes


This page is a collection of references for a talk given at SkeptiCamp in Manchester on 13th Oct 2017.

General Links

  • Posting I wrote back in 2010 entitled “Speaking in Tongues – The real story“. It resulted in rather a lot of comments.
  • The Wikipedia Page “Glossolalia” is quite a good primer on the topic. It covers the history and also the various forms of practise

Scientific References

William J. Samarin

In 1972 William J. Samarin, a linguist from the University of Toronto, published the results of a study on glossolalia.

  • Sociolinguistic vs. Neurophysiological Explanations for Glossolalia: Comment on Goodman’s Paper – Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion

He also published a book on the topic …

Quotes from Samarin …

It is verbal behaviour that consists of using a certain number of consonants and vowels[…]in a limited number of syllables that in turn are organized into larger units that are taken apart and rearranged pseudogrammatically[…]with variations in pitch, volume, speed and intensity

…consists of strings of syllables, made up of sounds taken from all those that the speaker knows, put together more or less haphazardly but emerging nevertheless as word-like and sentence-like units because of realistic, language-like rhythm and melody

Felicitas Goodman

Felicitas D. Goodman, a highly regarded expert in linguistics and anthropology, also studied the topic over the years. Here is a quick listing of some of her papers on the topic …

  • 1969 “Phonetic Analysis of Glossolalia in Four Cultural Settings.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. 8: 227-239.
  • 1969 “Glossolalia: Speaking in Tongues in Four Cultural Settings.” Confinia Psychiatrica 12: 113-129.
  • 1971 “Glossolalia and Single Limb Trance: Some Parallels.” Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics 19: 92-103.
  • 1972 Speaking in Tongues: A Cross-cultural Study of Glossolalia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • 1973 “Glossolalia and Hallucination in Pentecostal Congregations.” Psychiatria Clinica 6: 97-103.
  • 1973. “The Apostolics of Yucatan: A Case Study of a Religious Movement.” In Religion, Altered States of Consciousness, and Social Change. Erika Bourguignon, ed. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, pp. 178–218.
  • 1973 “Limits to Cultural Conditioning: Glossolalia in the United States in Cross-Cultural Perspective.” Paper presented to the 72nd Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, New Orleans, 29 November 1973.
  • 1974 “Disturbances in the Apostolic Church: A Trance-Based Upheaval in Yucatán.” In Trance, Healing and Hallucination by Felicitas Goodman, Jeannette M. Henney, and Esther Pressel. New York: Wiley Interscience, pp. 227–364.
  • 1974 “Not to Speak in Tongues: Abstention from Glossolalia in a Yucatecan Crisis Cult. (Paper prepared for the session on “Sociology of Language and Religion.” Eighth World Congress of Sociology. Toronto, Canada, August, 1974).

Felicitas Goodman studied a number of Pentecostal communities in the United States, the Caribbean and Mexico; these included English-, Spanish- and Mayan-speaking groups. She compared what she found with recordings of non-Christian rituals from Africa, Borneo, Indonesia and Japan. She took into account both the segmental structure (such as sounds, syllables, phrases) and the supra-segmental elements (rhythm, accent, intonation) and concluded that there was no distinction between what was practised by the Pentecostal Protestants and the followers of other religions

2006 New York Times

In 2006, the NYT ran an oft cited article entitled “A Neuroscientific Look at Speaking in Tongues” …

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania took brain images of five women while they spoke in tongues and found that their frontal lobes — the thinking, willful part of the brain through which people control what they do — were relatively quiet, as were the language centers. The regions involved in maintaining self-consciousness were active. The women were not in blind trances, and it was unclear which region was driving the behavior.

The actual study that this article was based upon is “The measurement of regional cerebral blood flow during glossolalia: A preliminary SPECT study“.

There is also an interesting commentary on this here …

These studies play with the ticklish notion that our brain mediates all of our inner experience—whether we’re angry, or in love, or enjoying a vanilla ice-cream cone. Every feeling can be expressed in patterns of neural activity spread out on a computer screen. But does the specific pattern associated with enjoying ice cream tell us anything new—about the brain, or ice cream, or ourselves? If your test subject tells you he likes ice cream, what do we learn from the fact that his brain thinks so too?

What I personally found fascinating was the discovery of believers who would cite this NYT article as “proof” that it was all real, and failed to grasp that it failed to demonstrate that anything supernatural was going on.