Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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GLOSSOLALIA Also known as "speaking in tongues" (from the Greek glossai , "tongues, languages," and lalein , "to speak"), this term traditionally describes the expression of profound religious experiences in words or languages unknown to the speaker. It is a historical and contemporary practice found in Christian and non-Christian religious communities worldwide.

Psychologists initially held to a "pathology model" of glossolalia, seeing it as caused by mental illnesses such as hysteria or schizophrenia, although evidence has since refuted this position. In fact, glossolalics seem to exhibit lower levels of anxiety, depression, and hostility than nonglossolalics, although they also display higher levels of suggestibility, passivity, and dependence.

There has been considerable debate over whether glossolalia is the result of an altered state of consciousness or whether it is simply acquired and maintained through social learning. Samarin (1972), a linguist, argues that glossolalia is essentially a reduction and simplification of one's native language, and is therefore something that anyone with normal linguistic capacities can produce given the proper training, set, and setting. In contrast, Goodman (1972), a psychological anthropologist, finds cross-cultural similarity in the structure of glossolalic utterances, and suggests that there are universal neurophysiological changes that cause it. Specifically, she argues that glossolalia is the outward manifestation of a "trance" state. To date, no conclusive evidence has been offered to adjudicate between these two positions, although it is likely that both explain important aspects of the complex event.

Sociologists have been especially concerned with the function of glossolalia in the process of conversion and commitment to pentecostal and charismatic movements, which are distinguished by the centrality of the practice to their worship and in which glossolalia is seen as a sign of membership by virtue of "baptism in the Spirit." Communities in which tongues-speaking is normative are among the fastest growing in the world (e.g., the Assemblies of God), and Poloma (1989) has argued that the growth can be explained in part by the motivation and empowerment felt by glossolalics, which lead to successful evangelism.

See also Pentecostalism

David Yamane


F. D. Goodman, Speaking in Tongues (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972)

M. Poloma, The Assemblies of God at the Crossroads (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1989)

W.J. Samarin, Tongues of Men and Angels (New York: Macmillan, 1972).

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