Guernica Magazine

An Apex of Babble

I grew up in a community where the phenomenon of speaking in tongues (called glossolalia by linguists) is more than just some loaves-and-fishes Sunday School curiosity. The post An Apex of Babble appeared first on Guernica.
Image source: Library of Congress.


Prayer in glossolalic language A (43 seconds):

K’olamàsiándo labok’à tohoriəmàsí làmo siándo labok’à t’ahàndoria lamo siàndo k’oləmàsí làbosiándo lakat’ándori làmo siàmbəbə k’ət’ándo lamá fià lama fiàndoriək’o labok’an doriasàndó làmo siándoriako làbo siá làmo siandó làbək’án dorià lamà fiá lama fiàndolok’oləməbəbəsí siàndó lamà fiat’andorià lamok’áyəmasi labo siàndó.

– William Samarin, “Variation and Variables in Religious Glossolalia” (1972).


In a small apartment downtown, a group of people has gathered. There’s maybe a hundred of them, men and women, and they’re not exactly sure why they’ve gathered. Then, suddenly, a sound like the rushing of a violent wind comes down from the heavens and fills the whole house. Helpless, they watch as tongues of fire descend from the clouds, and then these tongues begin to move toward them, before finally coming to sit on their own tongues. The people try to speak with each other, to communicate their astonishment or terror or ecstasy, but each one is speaking in tongues, speaking in languages they’ve never spoken before or since. And then, sometime later, everyone involved is spectacularly martyred.

Or at least that’s the story I’m told as a child. The story is called “Pentecost,” and the people gathered are the apostles. At that time, I didn’t understand that the phrase tongue of fire just means a flame, so I assumed that the poor apostles watched an army of actual human tongues descend from the sky, all pink and wet and squirmy and lit up like candles, and then their own tongues caught fire. I pictured the apostles standing around slack-jawed, afraid of burning the roofs of their mouths.

I worried that one day I’d have to speak in tongues, that I’d suffer the same embarrassing fate.

My childhood anxieties weren’t entirely irrational: I grew up in a community where the phenomenon of speaking in tongues (called glossolalia by linguists) is more than just some loaves-and-fishes Sunday-school curiosity. Speaking in tongues is an everyday miracle whose practice is so commonplace that, when I’m older, the Apostles’ astonished reaction to Pentecost seems to me almost comically naive.


“The literature on glossolalia is relatively

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