What Does “Speaking In Tongues” Mean?

Male with his arms raised as if praising at church

Speaking in tongues, also referred to as gift of tongues or glossolalia, is a phenomenon that occurs when a person experiencing religious ecstasy or a trance utters incomprehensible sounds that they believe are a language spoken through them by a god or deity. It is believed that a person speaking in tongues is temporarily being gifted the ability to speak a language they do not know.

Glossolalia could be confused with the similar term xenoglossia or xenoglossy, which is the ability to speak a language that one has never learned and may have acquired through paranormal means (for example, during a trance to communicate with spirits). In general, xenoglossia doesn’t have the religious implications that glossolalia does.

The word xenoglossia is formed by combining the Greek xeno- (or “alien, strange”) with glossa (“language”). Glossolalia is rooted in that same term for language (glossa) and laliá (“chatter”).

Unsurprisingly, the phrase speaking in tongues can be traced back to a major religious text.

Where did the idea of speaking in tongues come from?

The idea of speaking in tongues is mentioned in the Bible in 1 Corinthians:12 as a spiritual gift that a baptized person who has accepted Christ could receive from God and the Holy Spirit. This gift allows a person to speak a foreign language they otherwise have no knowledge of.

The Ancient Greeks influenced our language for love. Fram agape to eros, discover many of the words used for love in its different forms.

The first recorded use of a version of the phrase speaking in tongues in English comes from the Tyndale Bible, which was created during the early 1500s. Since that time, other translations of the Bible have also used this phrase. The phrase gift of tongues also emerged in Biblical teaching and interpretation during this time to refer to this spiritual gift. The term glossolalia is much more recent, being first recorded in the late 1800s.

Although the idea of speaking in tongues goes back centuries, it still remains a part of several different belief systems today.

Go Behind The Words!

Get the fascinating stories of your favorite words in your inbox.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Where is speaking in tongues practiced? 

Among Christians, speaking in tongues is most often associated with Pentecostals and Pentecostalism. Pentecostals take their name from the day of Pentecost, a day during which the Bible says that the apostles and followers of Jesus Christ were filled with the Holy Spirit and gifted the ability to speak in tongues.

Many Pentecostal churches encourage members to speak in tongues during prayer in order to communicate with God. Pentecostals also believe that speaking in tongues is a sign that the Holy Spirit has filled a person’s body after they have been baptized and accepted Jesus Christ. The Pentecostals’ practice of speaking in tongues was also the subject of research by linguist William Samarin, who discussed it and the practice in general in his 1972 book Tongues of Men and Angels.

Glossolalia has been noted to have been part of non-Christian religious sects as well. Glossolalia was practiced by followers of ancient Greek religions and the Bible stated that it was commonly practiced among the “pagans.” Forms of glossolalia have been practiced in a variety of religions around the world, including Haitian Voodoo, African and Asian shamanistic religions, Alaskan native religions, and Buddhism.

Previous Frozen "Yogurt" Got Its Name From A Misunderstanding Next How The Word “Dollar” Derives From “Joachimsthaler”