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We dont know what were saying

Language and language users


Heather Kavan
Massey University

[He] became obsessed and suddenly
fell into frenzy and convulsions. He
began to be ecstatic and to speak . . .
bastard utterances.
Eusebius (ca.324-5CE)

At first glance, glossolalia or speaking in tongues - may seem an unlikely
topic for serious academic study. The utterances conjure up images of
spooky services or fraudulent televangelists strutting their stuff to credulous
audiences. Yet glossolalia has fuelled a widespread academic debate,
involving scholars from anthropology, linguistics, psychology, history,
medicine, and sociology. The central question is whether speaking in
tongues is a linguistically distinctive trance phenomenon or a made-up
language that anyone can produce.

My central thesis is that the reason why scholars have been unable to reach
agreement about glossolalia is that there are different types of the
phenomenon: spontaneous and context-dependent
. If we compare the

I have also discussed this thesis in my 2004 article on glossolalia, in which my focus is on
altered states, rather than the linguistic characteristics and contexts discussed in this
paper. See
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glossolalia experiences described by early Pentecostals with those reported
by many tongue speakers today, we will see that they are widely different.
Even within Christianity today there are diverse contexts for speaking in
tongues: public worship, Spirit baptism, private use, and interpreted
messages, so there are likely to be different experiences which cannot be
generalised. More importantly, there are sporadic manifestations of
glossolalia that have not been studied in non-Christian spiritual paths, such
as Mahikari, Kundalini yoga, Siddha yoga, Qi Gong, Channelling, Subud, and
Sant Mat.

I will begin by briefly introducing the language of glossolalia. Then I will
take a step back and review the recent history of glossolalia, focusing on
how speaking in tongues has been Europeanised and purged of trance
experiences. Next, I will look at the different contexts of Christian
glossolalia. Finally, I suggest a further previously un-researched context for
glossolalia: as a manifestation of the purification process in several religions
outside of Christianity. For the purposes of this paper I define glossolalia as
any verbal utterance in a spiritual context that is not in the speakers own

My data on Christian glossolalia comes from over 500 hours of fieldwork in
Pentecostal/Charismatic meetings throughout New Zealand, plus 33
interviews and 153 questionnaire responses. The questions were open-
ended, asking participants about their experiences of glossolalia. My
material on non-Christian glossolalia is based on three years subsequent
fieldwork with the Golden Light in which participants occasionally broke
into glossolalia.

The language of glossolalia
The following is an example of Christian glossolalia transcribed. What is not
transcribed here, the tone, is very controlled; generally the speech is more
emotional than everyday speech:
Language and language users

/terema Suremi ki si janda o t tra o te tre o te rasu rlidZi Si kajanda
rIpiti rQili bUu Sak t sala ma ra ka l ba Z presi ji ana so tu l bijando
bm ma hu tu kera ba lQndo rdZ di ki biabi ba tru sil lil ji o prQi ba
bo ri si ri Ql Ini Qi In Si di ma hmbu straja/

There are several features that we can note from this transcription of the
recording. First, at the risk of stating the obvious, it is not speech in a
known language. Initially glossolalia was thought to be other languages, and
there are numerous stories about missionaries who went to foreign lands
expecting to miraculously speak new languages who almost starved and
returned home disillusioned (Anderson, 1979, p.90).

From the sample, we can also note that there are familiar words in slightly
disguised forms. You may have noted the word Australia, and there is also
ray, sure, me, see, religi(on), she, Kerry, land, Roger, true, pray, and
humble. These seem to be subconscious uprisings. These uprisings were first
noticed by one of Freuds contemporaries, Oskar Pfister, who
psychoanalysed a Pentecostal patient from the disguised words in his
glossolalia, through which the patient revealed his innermost secrets
(Christie-Murray 1978, p.172).

Glossolalia differs from normal speech in the following ways
(Christie-Murray, 1978; Samarin, 1972):

There are high incidences of repetition, alliteration and assonance.
The speaker whose glossolalia has been transcribed above rhymed
sounds consecutively, but also sent me a recording of himself
speaking glossolalia in rhyming couplets.
The range of sounds is small (this is more the case with Christian
glossolalia), and the vowels /a/ and /i/ are frequent.
The sounds of the speakers mother tongue are reproduced,
maximising common sounds and minimising uncommon sounds.
Speakers also tend to use words of languages with which they are
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familiar. Many New Zealand samples contain Maori words, especially
Speakers use a great deal of onomatopoeia, not so much in single
words but in overall feelings.
In comparison with the varied rhythm of conversation, the rhythm of
glossolalia is highly regular.
Speakers tend to use open syllables. The utterances sound very much
like abracadabra.

We cannot tell this from the single transcription, but when samples across
the world are put together, there is a similarity of words. The word
shunder, /Sand/, for example, and its variations /SQnd/, /Snd/,
/SInd/, and /Sahand/have been prominent in several locations (Samarin,
1972, p.98-9; Williams, 1981, p.175), and /Sand/ and its variations were in
57% of my Christian examples. This may be because /Sand/ is a low energy
word that does not require much exercise of the muscles and is therefore an
easy way of starting the flow, but as I have only heard it in Christian
glossolalia I expect the word was spread by people copying international

Anthropological linguist Felicitas Goodman also found other features of
glossolalia and in the process sparked the academic debate. Goodman
examined glossolalia in the Caribbean, Ohio, Texas, Brazil, Yucatan, Japan,
and Borneo (1972, 1974, 1980, 1987). Her subjects show extraordinary
behaviour while speaking in tongues. They flush, shiver, shake, twitch, jerk
their limbs, salivate wildly, throw themselves around, do somersaults, lift
sex taboos, and burn property. Goodman noted that their vocalisations had
common linguistic characteristics (beyond those already identified). For
example, each syllable begins with a consonant and nearly always is open,
groups of syllables are usually of equal duration and have a primary stress
on the first syllable, and phrases are of equal length and show a similar
rising falling intonation pattern.

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Observing that these linguistic patterns co-occurred with trance, Goodman
concluded that glossolalia is a linguistically distinctive trance phenomenon.
By trance she means a state of hyperarousal dissociation. Goodman also
compared glossolalia linguistically with vocalisations uttered during sleep,
hypnotic regression, and orgasm, and observed that they are different

Canadian linguist William Samarin argues that the linguistic characteristics
Goodman identified can be produced in a normal state. To support this,
Samarin conducted an unusual experiment in which he asked a group of
university students to each produce an artificial language on the spot. They
did so easily and the invented material was so similar to tongue speaking
that he concluded that glossolalia was a made-up language that anyone can
produce (1971, p.67). Or almost anyone Samarin adds that it takes brains
to speak nonsense.

The dispute is unresolved, but the most commonly held opinion is that
glossolalia occurs without trance. This is because linguistic studies have
found features of glossolalia that cannot be classified in Goodmans
framework (Jaquith, 1967; Bryant & OConnell, 1971; Osser, Ostwald,
Macwhinney & Casey, 1973). Also, laboratory studies have not supported
Goodmans conclusions. Tongue speakers have been attached to EEG
machines, ECG machines and polygraphs (Pavelsky, 1975), they have been
photographed with high frequency electrophotography (Strom, 1980), and
they have performed intelligence tests after speaking in tongues (Spanos &
Hewitt, 1979). All of these have shown that glossolalia easily occurs without

Despite the body of clinical evidence not supporting Goodmans trance
hypothesis, several commentators agree with her (for example, Stagg,
Hinson & Oates, 1967, p.82; deVol, 1974, p.285-8; Anderson, 1979, p.12;
Navarro, 1998, p.354-5), and I advanced my research with a sense that her
claim - although overstated - has an intuitive appeal. Pentecostalism is
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above all a religion of experience, encountering God the Holy Spirit is the
reason a person joins this faith, and even if members are not constantly
divinely intoxicated, most earnestly desire to be so.

Recent history
There is a wide difference between experiences of glossolalia today and
those reported by early American Pentecostals. The revival began with
Charles Parham, who was preaching at the turn of the last century at Bethel
College in Kansas. At a New Years Eve service in 1900, Parham stopped
preaching to lay hands on one of his students Agnes Ozman. Miss Ozman
suddenly broke into a language which sounded like Chinese and could speak
nothing else for three days. Almost immediately the students got together
to pray for the same experience, and at the end of three days, the group
burst into utterances that were believed to be other languages.

A few days later one of the group defected and denounced the whole thing
to the newspapers as a fraud. Agnes Ozman also renounced her experience,
but she changed her mind years later (Anderson, 1979, p.57-8), and
ultimately married an evangelist. Quite possibly, some of the participants
were not sure what had happened themselves.

In 1906, one of Parhams followers, William James Seymour carried the
speaking in tongues message to Los Angeles. Seymour was the descendant
of African slaves shipped to America, and because he was black he had been
restricted to watching Parhams meetings through a doorway. The historian,
Nils Bloch-Hoell, describes Seymour as a man with an ecstasy-creating
quality, an ability to arouse the most primitive human instincts (1964,
p.37). This reportedly led many people to speak in tongues, and others to
say that there was something simply satanic about him (p.36).

Seymour opened up a meeting place in a ghetto in Azusa Street. Azusa
Street became the centre of ecstatic outbursts with men and women
crowding the building and speaking in tongues. Meetings often ran as long as
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fifteen hours and sometimes ended with the police closing them down in the
early hours of the morning (Ward, 1975 p.102). By the participants own
accounts, recorded in their newspaper The Apostolic Faith, physical
demonstrations such as the jerks, treeing the devil (ecstatic barking at
the foot of trees), the holy laugh, and falling prostrate were part of the
glossolalia experience. Such was the frenzy that Seymour rarely needed to
preach. He spent most of the time with his head in an empty shoe box

Parham visited Azusa Street and was shocked by the violent physical
manifestations that accompanied glossolalia. He denounced the meetings
for their disgusting similarity to Southern Darkey meetings (Synan, 1971,
p.99) and became an avid Ku Klux Clan member. The issue of racial tension
is significant because several Pentecostal historians hold that the Azusa
Street phenomenon is a manifestation of West African religion, emerging
from the descendants of the slave trade (Hollenweger, 1972; Beckmann,
1974; Lovett, 1975; Tinney, 1976; MacRobert, 1988). While ultimately
Parham was disgraced (he was arrested in San Antonio for sodomy), he set in
motion a longstanding trend to Europeanise the glossolalia experience and
purge it of black African elements.

After the Azusa Street revival ended in 1907, glossolalia continued,
especially in the Bible Belt where snake and fire handling became part of
the repertoire of some groups. In psychiatrist William Sargants classic study
of snake handlers, he likens glossolalia to cortical inhibition experienced in
electric shock therapy, and observed that glossolalia brought about such an
extreme state of suggestibility that young girls could just as easily be
seduced as speak in tongues (1971, p.199). At this stage glossolalia was
considered to be part of the lunatic fringe of religion and Pentecostals were
boycotted at interdenominational activities.

However, the situation changed when in 1967 there was an outbreak of
glossolalia at a respectable Catholic prayer meeting at Notre Dame
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University. This was the beginning of the Charismatic renewal in which
Mainstream churches embraced and Europeanised glossolalia. Black notions
of being possessed by the Spirit gave way to European ideas of possessing
the Spirit (MacRobert, 1988, p.86). By 1980 the World Council of Churches
had officially recognised glossolalia, which, Walker suggests, was the kiss of
death to enthusiastic manifestations (1983, p.99).

Contexts of glossolalia
Turning now to the different contexts of glossolalia, the first four (public
worship, baptism of the Spirit, personal glossolalia, and interpreted
messages) are Christian contexts. The last context (manifestation of
purification) is drawn from my non-Christian fieldwork.

Public Worship
Most people who come across glossolalia hear it in the context of worship at
a Pentecostal or Charismatic meeting. The utterances usually occur during
the pauses between music, and there may also be singing in tongues.
Occasionally the preacher may speak in tongues while preaching, seemingly
when he - and it almost always is a he - runs out of things to say. To
outsiders, glossolalia during worship usually appears spontaneous. However,
most tongue speakers practise their glossolalia (half of my sample spoke in
tongues at least once a day), so some degree of rehearsal usually takes
place. Glossolalia practices may also occur at meetings, and this is
illustrated by one of my recordings taken from an Assemblies of God church.
Here the pastor attempts to rouse members to improve their glossolalia.
The scene begins with him inviting the congregation to stand at the front of
the church:

If you speak in more than one language in your own tongues impart it
to someone else. And if you cant break through into another language,
hold your nose. Well go for it. Why not? One of the problems of
entering into speaking other languages is that we frighten ourselves.
Were afraid of our own voices and sometimes youve got to be a little
hilarious to let it happen.

Language and language users
(The congregation sing Theres a river of life in English and then in

/imanda raba sijanda k
mika be:rQnda sib:rQnda/. Make a few
syllables just to the Lord.

Just allow the Holy Ghost. Just begin to speak out things. Maybe
something like Abba or something like that which means Holy Father
Gracious Godthese sorts of things.

Hallelujah, hallelujah is another language. Praise God, Hallelujah,
/ki:nQnsa ka:so b:rQnda ra:rQnda/ and youll feel it welling up from
within. Hallelujah.

Lord, let there be a release in the name of Jesus. Diverse kinds of
tongues. Dont be afraid. Dont be afraid to put a voice on it. Just let
it come out. Praise God.

(To a woman in the congregation) Youre anxious about it arent you?
(The pastor divines that the woman is experiencing a blockage and the
microphone is switched off. After several minutes he continues his
lesson to the congregation.)

We need to speak with authority, we need it to be bold, and not vain
babblings, not just sort of throwing it up and hoping its going
somewhere, but to speak with authority.

And sometimes, especially for the men, you can do that by being deep.
Not just speaking out of your mind, but speaking out of your being.
Shall we have a practice? Yeah, you speak from here.

/orambabaSi/[Background mumbling in tongues]. /o:ramba k maya/.
Come on with authority /mmberQnda o: rb abrab h
li berQnda
sInbaba/ From the Spirit. From inside.

(Group tongues, male voices speaking with authority.) /o: baba rsti
berQnda o berQnda o raba o o: jabasi/

Practise it, practise it, and then practise some more.

All go oh oh oh
[Congregation] oh oh oh
No thats not deep enough.
Now lets go ho ho ho.
[Congregation] ho ho ho.
(slightly abridged)

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What is outstanding in this example is how unsubtle the instructions are.
The words are suggested, Maybe something like Abba, as are the physical
sensations, youll feel it welling up within, and there is an implicit
message that it is permissible to copy others tongues: If you speak more
than one [tongue] impart it to someone else. The tongues are not an
overflow of pent up feelings, thrilling waves of euphoria, or trance. The
utterances are consciously manufactured, Now lets go ho ho ho, and
members are exhorted to practise it, practise it, and then practise some

Baptism of the Spirit
If we look deeper behind the public displays of glossolalia, we find that for
many Christians, glossolalia links their past spiritual experience with the
present because it is believed to be a product of their baptism of the Spirit.
The baptism of the Spirit is considered by Pentecostals to be a
transformative peak experience in which the person feels the presence of
the Holy Spirit pouring through them. Pentecostals consider that Christians
who do not have this experience are relatively powerless. As all of the
churches I visited taught that glossolalia is a mandatory sign of Spirit
baptism, there was a great deal of peer pressure to speak in tongues.

Sixty seven percent of my sample experienced a climactic altered state
during their baptism of the Spirit, including forty five percent who believed
it was the greatest experience of their life. For sixty percent, their first
utterance was effortless, and in the midst of an overwhelming religious
experience, they easily broke into glossolalia. Here are some reports of the

These strange sounds came from my mouth and I didnt know what it
was all about so I shut my mouth tight to stop it.

The pastor prayed for me and I felt a jolt like an electric shock and
began to speak in a funny language.

A kind of liquid love filled my being and I began articulating in a
language I had never heard.
Language and language users

I heard a wind coming towards the house and the next moment I woke
up on the floor ... and began to speak in tongues.

My tongue started moving spontaneously and I didnt realise at the
time it was tongues.

Some spoke in tongues before they had even heard of the baptism of the
Spirit or glossolalia. However, almost two thirds of the sample had to begin
speaking in tongues by consciously manufacturing glossolalia (including some
who said that their first utterance was effortless). Forty percent reported
experiencing difficulty doing this, most commonly the feeling that they
were making the sounds up. At meetings the would-be speaker was often
encircled by fellow Christians earnestly praying for them while a leader
coached: Open your mouth and move your tongue. They were often
advised to imitate the surrounding members tongues, and were persistently
encouraged until they made a few noises. Women, in particular, were given
advice to start off with babytalk, say the alphabet and say banana
backwards. Several participants suspected that their language was
nonsensical (It sounded like Donald Duck), and felt its stiltedness was
incongruous with the beautiful wholeness of their experience. It all seemed
too contrived one participant commented, and another: In some way it
distracted from being a follower of Christ.

Private glossolalia
After their first experience, for most tongue speakers glossolalia became a
routine activity. Over half of my sample frequently spoke in tongues while
driving a car and doing housework. They were aware of the repetitiveness
and that they sounded silly. I wondered, commented one participant,
why it was necessary for the intellect to be so fruitless. Although many
could quote Bible verses showing that speaking in tongues edifies, several
could not say that they felt any better for doing so. As few people would
continue to participate in an activity that they think sounds like nonsense
and does not give them much pleasure, some participants felt very
uncomfortable when I asked questions about this. Their rationale was that,
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despite the seeming absurdity of their utterances, they trusted God that
what they were saying was profound.

However, forty one percent continued to have spiritual experiences during
glossolalia. Many of these may have occurred regardless of whether the
person was speaking in tongues, but several experiences were distinctly
related to glossolalia. Here is one example:

I was by myself in the garden making compost. It was a still autumn
day and I was very aware of the atmosphere of nature. The beauty and
rhythm that surrounded me were almost very much inside me. I was
acutely aware that I was part of Gods creation actively involved in
it. There seemed to be a song being sung and I was aware of the song
being outside of myself and also with in me. It was with the most
astounding realisation that I was able to sing this song. My tongue and
lips, almost unconnected from me, began to make sounds - very
hesitatingly I was singing creations song - I was speaking, praying in
tongues. This song unravelled itself into a flowing rhythmical chant.

Experiences like this one tended to be reported by those who constructed a
meaning for their glossolalia, and who were likely to speak in tongues with
purpose, expectation and intensity, rather than out of habit or in obedience
to doctrine (Kavan, 2004).

Interpreted Message
Tongues messages and interpretations are infrequent, and I would estimate
that one would hear a message and interpretation in fewer than one in
every fifty Pentecostal meetings. The messages usually take place in prayer
meetings, or public services - either during the praise part of the meeting
that follows the singing or after the preaching. During tongues messages,
speakers customarily stand up and raise their hands and burst into
glossolalia. They may sway, tremble and give the impression that they
cannot contain their breathless outpourings. Then there is a silence as the
group wait for someone to interpret the utterance. Occasionally no
interpretation is forthcoming, and this is embarrassing for the person who
has leapt to their feet and given the message, because it implies that their
utterance was not genuine. As giving an uninterpreted message may cost the
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speaker their spiritual credibility, one Pentecostal woman candidly
explained that she always has an interpretation up my sleeve in case this
happens to her.

While outsiders are led to believe that interpretations are miracles where
the Holy Spirit cracks a secret linguistic code, in reality the demands on an
interpreter to give a credible performance are not high. Interpretations are
limited by the vocabulary, intelligence and beliefs of the interpreter.
Typically they contain a single platitude repeated in several ways. They are
often full of mistakes, for example one man speaking as God in the first
person announced, For as I say unto you in my Word - the Bible -the lion
had a prickle in his paw... and then proceeded to tell a story that was a
mixture of Aesops fables and Androcles and the lion.

Interpretations are also influenced by the speakers personality. For
example, one woman gave several interpretations in which Jesus always
referred to members as my children, and nagged them to appreciate his
sacrifices (I didnt go to the cross for cosmetic reasons). There were also
several predictable messages directed at me with God showing his alleged
low opinion of academics. Not unexpectedly, 28% of interpreters admitted
that they were not sure that their most recent interpretation of a tongues
message was correct.

My most surprising finding was that speakers had their glossolalia so off pat
that they gave almost identical messages each time (not just in words but
also in tone, rhythm and pausing), yet participants gave widely different
interpretations. This shows the extent to which tongue speakers rehearse
glossolalia. Nobody notices that the interpretations are different because
the glossolalia is uttered rapidly, it is not semantically meaningful, and
there is usually a gap of weeks often months - between an individuals

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Manifestation of Purification
My final context for glossolalia is as a manifestation of purification in
spiritual paths outside Christianity. There have been sporadic reports of
glossolalia in purificatory groups such as Mahikari, Kundalini yoga, Siddha
yoga, Qi Gong, Channelling, Subud, and Sant Mat. A central belief in these
groups is that participants receive spiritual energy or have their own
spiritual energy activated. They believe that this energy releases them of
impurities they have accumulated through centuries of birth and rebirth.
During this process, participants may experience kriyas (manifestations),
such as shaking, weeping, laughing, howling, upsurges of memories, and
very occasionally glossolalia. Participants believe that these kriyas help
purify them to receive energies of higher states of consciousness, and
ultimately to reach enlightenment (Kavan, 2004).

The group that I researched is called the Golden Light, a new religious group
that arose in the early 1990s. Their practices are a mixture of Kundalini
yoga and New Age channelling. While almost all of the group were New
Zealand European, many had strong previous associations with the Indian
leader of Siddha yoga, Guru Maya.

This group shared many similarities with the early Pentecostal movement
(Kavan, 2004). Meditations often resembled Azusa Street meetings:
participants shook, jerked their limbs, had spiritual experiences, yelled,
wept, experienced upsurges of memories, broke into altered breathing
patterns, laughed, swore, and broke taboos about bodily noises. Like
Seymour, the leaders presence elicited altered states of consciousness.
Speaking in tongues was experienced only rarely. There were no teachings
that might lead participants to expect glossolalia, and they manifested it
spontaneously, often with little or no previous knowledge of the
phenomenon. Most commonly this occurred during meditations where they
experienced glossolalia as an uprush of past life trauma being dislodged by
the spiritual energy. These utterances shared the same linguistic
characteristics as Christian glossolalia, but were less repetitive, and did not
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contain the preponderance of sounds like /tikitiki/ and /Sand/. Members
could also speak comprehensibly during these experiences; in fact their
non-glossolalic speech during trances was more lucid than ordinary speech,
because they abandoned all censorship and pretension (Kavan, 2004).

To return to the research question of whether glossolalia is a linguistically
distinctive trance phenomenon or a made up language that anyone can
produce, it seems fair to say that glossolalia is linguistically distinctive.
However, whether speaking in tongues is a trance phenomenon depends
largely on the type of glossolalia. I argue that there are two main types of
glossolalia: spontaneous and context-dependent. Spontaneous glossolalia is
an intense uprush of vocalisations where tongues flow without prompting or
prior knowledge of them, and the participant does not know what is
happening to them. This was experienced in the purification group, it was
evident in a minority of Christian accounts, and is likely to have occurred
during the early Pentecostal revival.

However, most New Zealand Christians experience context dependent
glossolalia, which originates as an idea about glossolalia in the speakers
mind, and is the made up language that Samarin described. It is the
hallmark of the Europeanised tradition where manifestations of trance have
been purged from the movement, and instead participants consciously
manufacture glossolalia. While some of the examples showing the extent to
which the utterances are contrived came as a surprise even to me, they give
us an insight in to the varied world of tongue speaking.

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We dont know what were saying