People who attend Pentecostal churches speak in tongues which is also called glossolalia.

Is it for real or do they just fake it?

  • Related: skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/17140/…
    – user5582
    Feb 19 '14 at 15:22
  • 5
    "Is it for real or do they just fake it?"... There's a third option: they could be self-deceiving.
    – user5582
    Feb 19 '14 at 15:32
  • 1
    What do you mean "for real" and how would it be different from "faking it"? All videos I've seen is people going "lalala" or something similar. It's clearly not a "language" per se.
    – Sklivvz
    Feb 19 '14 at 15:37
  • Echoing Articuno, the phenomenon could be real but not the normal religious interpretation of it. So a good answer will make that distinction clear.
    – matt_black
    Feb 19 '14 at 15:37
  • Are you asking if it's a real, known language, or are you asking us to somehow decide if it's a supernatural language or not? Feb 19 '14 at 21:34

I will quote the Wikipedia article on this topic because I believe its content is uncontroversial and it is well supported by references, some of which I repeat inline here.

From Glossolalia:

... glossolalic speech does resemble human language in some respects. The speaker uses accent, rhythm, intonation and pauses to break up the speech into distinct units. Each unit is itself made up of syllables, the syllables being formed from consonants and vowels taken from a language known to the speaker ...


Felicitas Goodman, a psychological anthropologist and linguist, also found that the speech of glossolalists reflected the patterns of speech of the speaker's native language. ref


glossolalia is "only a facade of language". (Samarin, William J. (1972). Tongues of Men and Angels: The Religious Language of Pentecostalism. New York: Macmillan. p. 128)


Samarin defined Pentecostal glossolalia as "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". (Samarin, William J. (1972). Tongues of Men and Angels: The Religious Language of Pentecostalism. New York: Macmillan. p. 2)

Thus, speakers believe they are speaking a real language unknown to them, but they use vocal components taken from languages familiar to the speaker, and the resulting utterance has "no systematic resemblance to any natural language".

This is also covered in episode 227 of the Skeptics Guide to the Universe at 47:00 and onward in response to a listener email.

They quote a Joe Nickell book that summarizes the conclusions of Samarin:

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. Glossolalia is language-like because the speaker subconsciously wants it to be language-like. Yet in spite of superficial similarities, it's fundamentally not a language.

  • 3
    Worth pointing out that "no systematic resemblance to any natural language" is what the speakers believe too. It's not claimed that it is a 'natural language'. Feb 19 '14 at 21:31
  • What @DJClayworth is hinting at, I think, is the concept on part of the speakers where they themselves think that they are speaking "in the tongues of angels" (1 Corinthians 13:1). In any case I do remember being told by an acquaintance when I grew up (this was in Sweden where the Pentecostal religion was somewhat common in 80's) that "someone they knew" had been present in one of the meetings and happened to recognize the language spoken by an individual that started speaking "in tongues". According to that individual the speech spoken by the person had consisted mostly of curse words.
    – user100487
    Apr 30 '16 at 4:34

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