Tongues of Men and Angels, by William J. Samarin (Macmillan, 1972, 277 pp., $7.95), is reviewed by Ralph W. Fasold, assistant professor of linguistics, Georgetown University, Washington, D. C.
William Samarin is a Christian and a recognized linguist who has applied his professional skills to the study of speaking in tongues, technically called “glossolalia.” One of the most common questions asked of linguists by evangelicals who do not speak in tongues is, “Are tongues real languages?” Samarin’s answer is negative: “… in spite of superficial similarities, glossolalia is fundamentally not language.”
Although about 83 per cent of the glossolalists who responded to Samarin’s questionnaire were convinced that their tongues were real languages (a few did not know or did not particularly care), it is obvious to a linguist that glossolalia sounds like language but is not. A student in an introductory course can easily figure out the meanings of many of the words in a passage of a language he does not know if he is given even a loose translation. And even without a translation a linguist can begin to decipher the pattern of an unfamiliar language. This is impossible with glossolalia.
Some glossolalists themselves are plagued with doubts about the validity of their tongues. One speaker complained of doubts because “I was speaking what seemed like gibberish of my own making” (though she later conquered her doubts). In fact, from a linguistic viewpoint glossolalia is very easy to produce. (The critically acclaimed movie Marjoe, the story of an admittedly fake Pentecostal evangelist, offers an example for all to see.) According to Samarin, “Anyone can produce glossolalia if he is uninhibited and if he discovers what the ‘trick’ is.” It ...1
Already a CT subscriber? Log in for full digital access.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 60+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more