Glossolalia, also known as speaking in tongues, causes people to make speech-like sounds that are otherwise unintelligible in any language. This often occurs as part of a religious ceremony, and occurrences have been well-documented across the world. Religious communities, particularly Christian ones, have had considerable discussion on glossolalia’s status (is it really language?) and source (is it natural, spiritual, or supernatural in origin?).

The New Testament tells of the apostles’ ability to suddenly understand all languages as if those languages were their own tongue. This story is very much the opposite of what happened at the Tower of Babel. The book of Acts records several instances of speaking in tongues.

Glossolalia continued with the Christian church. In 150 AD, Justin Martyr wrote of people who “possess gifts of the Spirit of God”. Quakers believed in speaking in tongues, as did the Franciscans.

Modern glossolalia began in the USA near the turn of the twentieth century. Charles Fox Parham, founder of the Bethel Bible College, held a sermon. A student requested the laying on of hands, which filled her with the Holy Spirit on New Year’s Eve, 1900. She experienced glossolalia, as did several others, Parham included. Within a year, glossolalia was believed by some to be a sign of the second advent of Pentecost.

Parham found himself leader of a movement that believed in divine healing, the laying on of hands, prayer, and speaking in tongues. He and his followers were often shunned and persecuted by some church members. Nevertheless, between 1901-1906, he was at the centre of a Pentecostal movement that encouraged speaking in tongues and other forms of rapture.

Parham indoctrinated a student, William J. Seymour. While Parham was white, Seymour was black – an issue that was to cause troubles in the less-enlightened days of the early 20th century. Seymour went on to lead the Azusa Street Revival, an interdenominational, inter-sex, inter-racial Pentecostal revival movement. Newspapers reported on these wild and crazy people jittering, howling, and speaking gibberish. Worshippers argued whether glossolalia was heresy or whether it was a necessary component of spiritual rebirth.

Glossolalia is practiced among other groups as well. It has been observed in the Voodoo religion from Haiti, and in shamanism. Nineteenth-century Spiritists explained that speaking in tongues actually was a manifestation of spirits. However, they see the message as unintelligible and therefore meaningless to those present. Even the ancient Oracle at Delphi relied on this, as Apollo’s priestess would speak unintelligibly under the influence of the god.