Has The Tongues Movement Convinced The Language Experts?

Larry Holton

In the first century certain Christians, according to God's will (I Cor. 12:11), received the miraculous gift of speaking in foreign languages which they had not previously known (Acts 2:4-6; I Cor. 12:10), It stands to reason that if Jesus is the author of the present-day tongues movement it would also be miraculous and there would be no problem in convincing our nation's finest language experts of this fact...but has it? I have studied linguistic analyses of Glossolalia and have conducted a survey among linguists at the various universities throughout the nation and parts of the world. Let me divide this article into two major sections: Section I - The Results of Linguistic Analysis; Section II - The Results of the National Survey.


The Results of Linguistic Analysis

Before we look at the results of linguistic analysis, let the linguists answer three crucial objections that the tongue-speaker may have.

Objection: Since there are nearly three thousand languages in the world linguists could not have heard every language in the world, therefore if they studied a tape-recording of glossolalia they might not know wha language it was in.

Answer: A statement from William Welmers, Ph.D., in linguistics from U.C.L.A. answers this objection nicely: "That is not an entirely valid argument. Among us, we have heard many hundreds of languages. Furthermore, we have heard representative languages in virtually every group of related languages in the world. At worst we may have missed a few small groups in the interior of South America or in New Guinea. I would estimate that the chances are at least even that if a glossolalic utterance is in a known language, one of us would either recognize the language or recognize that it is similar to some language we are acquainted with." Dr. Welmers makes this challenge: "Get two recordings, one of a glossolalic utterance and the other in a real language remote from anything I have ever heard - any West Coast American Indian language would fill the bill. I'm confident that in just a few moments I could tell which is which and why I am sure of it."1

Objection: The language I speak in is a dead language and there is no way a language expert could detect it.

Answer: In a letter from Herbert Stahike of Georgia State University, he states, "The problem of whether a glossolalic utterance involves the speaking of a foreign language depends heavily on your definition of a foreign language. If you mean a modern spoken language or a dead language of which we have some written record, then the claim is testable, otherwise the claim is meaningless."2 Bill Siemens says, "I have heard glossolalia a number of times, but in no case did it ever vaguely resemble any of the modem or ancient languages with which I am familiar in some degree."3

William J. Samarin, Ph.D., from the University of Toronto, is the foremost expert on Pentecostal glossolalia. His linguistic description is based upon a large sample of glossolalia taken over a five-year period and he has heard glossolalia from Italy, Holland, Jamaica, Canada, United States and Puerto Rico. He gives this definition to glossolalia: "A meaningless but phonologically structured human utterance believed by the speaker to be a real language but bearing no systematic resemblance to any natural language, living or dead."4

Objection: The language I speak is an angelic language so a linguist couldn't analyze it or measure it by man's standard.

Answer: First of all angels speak and communicate in understandable languages5 and secondly Dr. Samarin says, "There is no difference linguistically between the verbal nonsense that the Pentecostals relate to of I Corinthians 12:10 and I Corinthians 14:2. Those who make that statement can't prove it under linguistic survey."6

The objections produced by those who practice tongue-speaking do not hold ground in the light of the facts. The results of all linguistic analysis concludes that glossolalia is not a foreign language, living or dead. Let us briefly examine the results of eight linguists:

Eugene A. Nida, Secretary of Translations for the American Bible Society and world renowned expert in linguistics, concluded from his studies that the phonemic strata indicates that the phonomes of glossolalic utterances are closely associated with the language background of the speaker's native language.7

Felicitas D. Goodman made phonetic analysis of glossolalia from recordings she taped for her Master's Degree in Mexico and different sections of the United States. She concludes that the glossolalia she analyzed was not productive and noncommunicative.8

James Jaquith from Washington University in his research among English speaking tongue-speakers concludes that "There is no evidence that these glossolalic utterances have been generated by constituent subcodes of any natural language other than English."9

Ernest Bryant and Daniel O'Connell of St. Louis University studied nine tapes of glossolalia taken from among their respondents. The results of their studies proved that "all glossolalic phonemes are within the normal phonemic repertoire of the native speaker of English."10 He says, "If a foreign language system were used a much greater divergence of phonemes would be expected, but the opposite is the case."

Dr. Donald Larson of Bethel College in St. Paul, Minnesota, began analyzing glossolalic samples in Toronto, Canada, in 1957. Since then he has analyzed many samples and observed glossolalic behavior in different parts of the world. His research also concludes that the phonological features of the native speaker's language carried over into his glossolalia experience.11

In a letter to Dr, William Welmers of U.C.L.A., I asked him, "In your studies of modern glossolalia have you detected any known language?" His reply was, "In short, absolutely not." He goes on to say that "Glossolalic utterances are consistently in important respects unlike human languages. They are characterized by a great deal of recurrences of closely similar sequences of syllables and usually employ a restricted number of different sounds." Dr. Welmers said that the same thing is true of hundreds of other utterances studied by Christian linguistics of his acquaintance.12

Dr. Samarin, by far the most thorough, says, "There is no mystery about glossolalia. Tape recorded samples are easy to obtain and to analyze. They always turn out to be the same things: strings of syllables made up of sounds taken from among all those that the speaker knows, put together more or less haphazardly but which nevertheless emerge as word-like or sentence-like units.13

In conclusion to the first part of our study, what have we learned?

First of all, we now know that the linguist is extremely competent and can easily answer the objections that a tongue-speaker may have. The layman is no match for the expert in linguistics, who for decades has been studying languages throughout the world. Also, we learned that when a person of the English language is speaking in tongues, he is simply using a few of his English sounds and rearranging those sounds in a non-English pattern and also he uses some syllables over and over again.

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The Results of the National Survey

Not one linguist said that glossolalia was a foreign language, Yet may I share just one letter out of many. A letter from Bruce R. Gordon, Head of the Department of Linguistics and Foreign Languages, University of Alaska at Fairbanks, says that he remains skeptical, not only because of the linguistic material, but he also verified two cases of speaking in actual foreign languages which he proved fraudulent beyond any question, Bruce goes on to say, "In the one case, despite denials, the person involved had lived in Africa and had had direct contact with several African tongues."14 In all the chances the tongue-speaker has had to convince the language expert he has failed to do so.

Let me close with this profound statement by Dr. William Samarin:

"Although speaking in a real language is claimed by Christian Charismatists to be part of the tongue-speaking experience, they would be unable to provide a case that would stand up to scientific investigation."15

Since the tongues movement has not convinced the language experts, I can only logically conclude that Jesus is not the author of this present-day deception.

Larry Holton

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1 William Welmers, Ph.D., Department of Linguistics, University of California at Los Angeles, a personal letter of November 5, 1974.

2Herbert Stahlke, Department of English, Georgia State University, in a personal letter of February 5, 1975.

3Bill Siemens, Department of Foreign Languages, West Virginia University, in a personal letter of February 10, 1975.

4William J. Samarin, Tongues of Men and Angels, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1972, p. 2.

5Larry Holton, Modern Tongue Speaking, Biblical or Ecstatic?, unpublished thesis, August 15, 1975, pp. 31-37.

6Samarin, Tongues of Men and Angels, p. 151.

7E. Mansel Pattison, "Behavioral Science Research on the Nature of Glossolalia," Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, Vol. 20 (1968), p. 79.

8Felicitas D. Goodman, "Phonetic Analysis of Glossolalia in Four Cultural Settings," Journal for the Study of Religion, 8 (1969), p. 236.

9James Jaquith, "Toward a Typology of Formal Communicative Behavior," Anthropological Linguistics, 9 (1967), p. 5.

10Ernest Bryant and Daniel O'Connell, "A Phonemic Analysis of Nine Samples of Glossolalic Speech," Psychonomic Science, 22 (1971), p. 81.

11Dr. Donald N. Larson, Bethel College, 3900 Bethel Drive, St. Paul, Minnesota, unpublished paper.

12Dr. William Welmers, Department of Linguistics, U.C.L.A., in a personal letter of November 5, 1974.

13Samarin, op. cit., p. 227.

14Bruce R, Gordon, Department of Linguistics, University of Alaska, Fairbanks, Alaska, in a personal letter of November 21, 1974.

15William Samarin, "The Linguisticality of Glossoialia," Hartford Quarterly, 8 (1968), p. 55.


GLOSSOLALIA: A technical term for speaking in tongues

GLOSSOLALIC UTTERANCE: Abnormal speech made by those who speak in tongues

PHONEME: A set of phonetically similar but slightly different sounds in a language that are heard as the same sound by native speakers

PHONEMIC STRATA: Characterized by or based on phonemes

LINGUISTIC ANALYSIS: A very careful and scientific method of studying a language

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