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.” The term comes from a combination of two Greek words: glõssai, which means "tongues" or "languages," and lalien that means, "to speak."[1] In the classic translation, the two Greek words refer to speaking an actual language. In an article from the University of Richmond Collegian, “C’mon, learn another tongue while you’re still young,” is about learning other languages or “tongues.”[2]

However, when applied to religion “speaking in tongues” takes on an entirely different interpretation that is aurally and visually peculiar or disquieting to the uninitiated. “Speaking in tongues” is often accompanied by “holy dances” 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.

In the Bible, speaking in tongues meant having command of a different and actual language like an interpreter at the UN who must have command of many languages.

They shall speak with new tongues (Mark 16:17). Our Lord guarantees this gift together with the commission, [3] Go ye into the whole world, and preach the gospel to every creature (Mark 16:15). Here we witness something of the logic of the gift of tongues: In order that the disciples will be able to more effectively carry out their mission to evangelize all peoples, it will be necessary for them to speak the languages of all peoples.”[4]

Again, we see this quite clearly in the reference to the miraculous speaking in tongues, which occurred after Pentecost. The disciples spoke in tongues, meaning that they spoke in the languages of all those present. For this reason, people were amazed and said, [5] And how have we heard, every man our own tongue wherein we were born? (Acts 2:8)[6]

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.[7],[8]

“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.[9]

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] Salvation, Holy Spirit Baptism, & Speaking in Tongues, Religious Tolerance, http://www.religioustolerance.org/tongues1.htm

[2] C’mon, learn another tongue while you’re still young, Abby Kloppenburg, The University of Richmond Collegian, : April 5, 2012, http://thecollegianur.com/2012/04/05/cmon-learn-another-tongue-whil...

[3] You're not speaking in tongues, you're just mumbling, Father Ryan Erlenbush, The New Theological Movement, June 7, 2011, http://newtheologicalmovement.blogspot.com/2011/06/youre-not-speaki...

[4] You're not speaking in tongues, you're just mumbling, Father Ryan Erlenbush, The New Theological Movement, June 7, 2011, http://newtheologicalmovement.blogspot.com/2011/06/youre-not-speaki...

[5] You're not speaking in tongues, you're just mumbling, Father Ryan Erlenbush, The New Theological Movement, June 7, 2011, http://newtheologicalmovement.blogspot.com/2011/06/youre-not-speaki...

[6] You're not speaking in tongues, you're just mumbling, Father Ryan Erlenbush, The New Theological Movement, June 7, 2011, http://newtheologicalmovement.blogspot.com/2011/06/youre-not-speaki...

[7] The Skeptic’s Dictionary, Robert T. Carroll, glossolalia, http://www.skepdic.com/glossol.html

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

[9] The Naked Skeptic, Singing in Tongues, Karen Stollznow, http://www.australasianscience.com.au/bi2007/288skeptic.pdf

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Tags: gibberish, glossolalia, language, pentecost, tongues, translating

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Comment by Donald R Barbera on December 7, 2013 at 8:39pm

Dennis--amen. I try not to be too hard on religionists unless they venture onto my territory. Nevertheless, if anyone has ever seen and heard someone speaking in tongues, it is very hard to hold your laughter. Then the holy dances? It is grand entertainment.

Comment by Michael Penn on December 5, 2013 at 9:03am

The holy that is happening is the Holy Goat, Donald. LOL  In my church days I've seen plenty of it, and some do simply want attention. I suppose the idea is that they have something you do not have, and that makes them more favored of god. They want to show you this.

I've also learned to beware of the person getting up to speak and claiming he was "just over in the corner talking to Jesus."

In my lifetime I've even witnessed the person that left the church never to come back because they wanted you to believe they had died in service and were "prayed back to life" again.

People are strange in general, but they are damned strange when it comes to religion!

Comment by Donald R Barbera on December 5, 2013 at 8:43am

Randall, as you can see, I was in that same boat. My grandmother used to tell me that the people who did that just wanted attention. Of course, that didn't make any sense at all to a sic-year-old kid, but as I became an adult I could see where there could be an element of truth in her analysis. In the places I went with friends that were Pentecostal, I noticed that the same people seemed to be overcome. Just a limited observation that made sense what Granny said. Obviously, I don't believe for a second that any thing holy is happening unless it it holy hucksterism.

Comment by Donald R Barbera on December 5, 2013 at 8:37am

Dennie that is really interesting. I've seen it, but I never knew of anyone that experienced it. I got my ass beat for laughing. I went to Catholic school during the time when it was staid and solemn. When I went to my friend's church it was a whole new experience to me and when I saw people jumping, jerking and writhing, I laughed. It made it even more hilarious when I heard what they said. I was having a scream until my mother took me outside. Well, I never laughed again, but I wanted to do it. Catholic Church was a drag!

Comment by Michael Penn on December 5, 2013 at 8:09am

You're right Donald. In the bible speaking in tongues would have to have been like an interpreter at the UN. The "reality" of it today is simply gibberish. Nevertheless, I've always wondered if there might have been a common dialect (known but not used often) spoken at Pentecost. In Kenya, for example, there are 7 tribes and they all have their own languages. To communicate together they can all speak Swahili. Not everyone uses Swahili, and English has taken over today, but get them around people speaking Swahili and they pick it up again quickly.

In my church days I never spoke in tongues. I was Pentecostal but just never could do it. I never had the baptism of the Holy Goat. One morning in 1986 I woke up in terror and grief, mourning the death of a spouse at 3 AM. I sat straight up in bed and the strange words came quickly and fluently. It was a comforting feeling and the gibberish went on for over 15 minutes. I was not in any church at the time, not religious, and this was my only experience with glossolalia.

The christian apologist would use that experience to try talking me back into church because "god loves me." Rolling around on the floor (like in your picture here) or like Curly from the Three Stooges doesn't prove "god" or any "blessings of god." One might as well prove this all by watching an epileptic having a fit. It's no accident that they were once considered "special" or "blessed." In fact, the modern tongues movement may be a carry over from this in ancient times.

Just what is the "tongues thing?" What is this speaking in tongues? It is the joy or sorrow that you cannot put into words. Very real to the speaker at the time, it has nothing more than a personal significance and is not a language at all.

Comment by Randall Smith on December 5, 2013 at 7:24am

Interesting. I've always wondered. When growing up near a "Holy Roller" church, I heard a lot of that craziness going on. Now that I'm remembering that, I'm thinking perhaps that's the cause of my atheism!

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