One of the hallmarks of Pentecostalism and the wider Charismatic Movement is “speaking in tongues,” or glossolalia. This modern phenomenon has its roots in the early 1900s when Pentecostalism as a movement within Christianity took root.
In 1901 a group of students who had been studying the Book of Acts and had come to view tongues as the sign of having been “baptised in the Spirit,” met together for prayer. Their leader, Charles Fox Parham, prayed for one of his group and she spoke in tongues; many others were to have similar experiences. The group believed that what they had experienced was the same as the first apostles had experienced on the day of Pentecost when, as Acts chapter 2 recounts, the Holy Spirit empowered them to speak in other languages previously unknown to them.
Parham’s group claimed to have been gifted in many languages: Chinese, Italian, Swedish, Spanish, Bohemian, Hungarian, Bulgarian, French, Norwegian, Japanese, and Russian. Parham then had a “light bulb” moment. If they had been empowered to speak in other languages, a la the apostles in Acts 2, then this would revolutionise missionary activity. No longer would missionaries have to study the language of the peoples they were seeking to evangelise. They could simply speak in tongues and communicate effectively without having to spend years studying French, or Russian, or Chinese. And thus with a spring in their step these new Pentecostal missionaries headed off to lands afar. They preached and they preached and they preached. Regrettably, not a single word was understood. The puzzled look on the faces of the “African savages” bore adequate testimony to the rank failure of the endeavour. Thus it was back to the drawing board for the Pentecostals, or at least back to language school.
These first Pentecostals were understandably a tad dejected by this failure. They were so sure they had been gifted in other tongues by the Holy Spirit. So, what were they to do? They could give up tongues speech, but they seemed to enjoy it too much. Thus they simply sought to reinterpret their experiences with a little theological jiggery pokery.
To this day it is unusual to find an intelligent Charismatic or Pentecostal who believes that glossolalia is another discernible human language. The reason is that linguistic study after experiment after linguistic study has been something of an acid bath for such claims. The first Pentecostals soon discovered through experience that they didn’t speak human languages. Modern Charismatics have discovered through linguistic studies that tongues aren’t human languages either. Linguists tend to be confident that tongues speech represents no known natural language that is or ever will be spoken by humans. The structure tends to be very different from human languages, and in most cases there isn’t enough variation in sounds to be a language at all. In the incredibly few cases where linguists have discovered a tongues speaker speaking an actual human language it transpires that the person was previously exposed to the language in question.
One of the most famous tongues researchers was William Samarin, linguistics professor at the University of Toronto, who engaged in years of research all over the globe. His conclusion: “There is no mystery about glossolalia. . . They always turn out to be the same thing: 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 and sentence-like units because of realistic, language-like rhythm and melody. . . glossolalia is fundamentally not language.”
Pentecostals and charismatics – at least those who are well-informed – can no longer claim to be speaking actual human languages. There just is no evidence that they are, and lots of evidence against.
But, of course, that hasn’t stopped them moving the goalposts in order to save their experience from refutation. If glossolalia isn’t human language, what is it? Well, it’s heavenly language of course, the “tongues of angels!” That’s why it sounds like gibberish to linguists!
We should have no tolerance for such a claim as there are weighty considerations against it. For one thing, it’s nothing other than an ad hoc saving hypothesis. There aren’t even any biblical instances of the tongues of angels. In fact whenever angels speak in the Bible it’s a known language. All we have is one obscure reference by Paul in a passage where the theme is love – not supernatural gifts. That’s hardly good grounds for building a theology of angelic tongues speech upon.
In any event there are also good linguistic reasons for rejecting this theory. Linguists who have studied tongues speech as it occurs in different language groups around the globe have noticed that tongues-speakers typically use sounds closely associated with their native language. In his research on English speaking tongues-speakers James Jaquith concluded, “There is no evidence that these glossolalic utterances have been generated by constituent subcodes of any natural language other than English.” The sounds are constructed from those the speaker knows. So, Indians will effectively speak an “Indian” version of tongues, Mandarin speakers will typically use a “Mandarin” version of tongues. That’s consistent with a psychological explanation for the phenomena and disconfirms the angelic language thesis. If it was an angelic language would we not expect something totally different? Or for those from totally different language backgrounds to speak a similar way that wasn’t obviously based in their own natural language? What appears to be going on in tongues-speech, from a psychological and linguistic perspective, is that the speaker is chopping up sounds from his own language and using them to create something new, something that sounds like another language when in fact it isn’t.
But rather than accept this, tongue-speakers have tended to shift the goalposts again. This has given rise to the rather unsightly spectacle of usually sensible theologians inventing an even more perplexing explanation: maybe tongues-speech is code! Further, maybe these language codes are unbreakable by linguists! Maybe only those who have the “key” for the code supernaturally bestowed on them are able to tell what it means!
That otherwise sober academics concoct such ridiculous theories to save a practice from conclusive refutation speaks volumes in itself. But for the fact that some exponents of this theory are well-respected academics their defence of tongues-speech would be laughed out of church. In any event, again we note the rather ad hoc nature of this thesis, not to mention the complete lack of any theological or philosophical reason for adopting it aside from saving tongues-speech from conclusive refutation. Moreover, those who claim to be gifted “code breakers” – who claim to have the “gift of interpretation” – don’t seem to perform very well when tested. James Randi once played a tape of tongues-speech to one charismatic minister, who interpreted it. Once the interpretation had been given, Randi informed him that the sample of tongues-speech had come from the ministers own church only a few weeks previously, and on that occasion the minister himself had given a completely different interpretation to what he was now giving to Randi. This is not an isolated example either. Others have gone to churches and spoke in Greek or Hebrew only to have their words interpreted very differently from the actual meaning. Thus, there doesn’t appear to be a lot of reason to put much trust in those who claim to be able to interpret tongues-speech or to “crack the code.”
In the final analysis tongues speech appears very much to be a psychological phenomenon. This should come as no surprise since tongues-speech is actually incredibly common. It occurs in children, in people with mental illnesses, as well as in many other religions: African voodoo, forms of Buddhism, sects of Mormonism, African animism, and Hinduism. There are even records of it occurring in ancient religions such as Greco-Roman mystery religions and many forms of paganism. The constant goalpost-shifting of charismatic apologists is really rather tiresome. Their increasingly implausible explanations are more to be pitied than laughed at. There is no reason whatsoever to think tongues-speech is a human language, an angelic language, or a secret code – and good reason to reject all such explanations.
Charismatics claim that their experiences mirror those of the Bible. The only detailed instance of tongues-speech occurred on the day of Pentecost, and on that occasion the apostles spoke in a variety of human languages. When charismatics start speaking of heavenly codes they have moved a long way from Acts 2. They might think they are engaging on something sacred, but when all the evidence is in it seems it’s little more than a big game of Let’s Pretend.