channelled languages and similar phenomena 1 (non-historical ‘fringe’ linguistics 10)

Hi again, everybody! I’m moving on here to linguistic aspects of (allegedly) channelled communications and similar cases. This series of blogs deals with one sub-set of a larger set of claims and theories about the mysterious emergence or appearance of linguistic material: either otherwise ‘normal’ language, or what appear to be manifestations of unknown (sometimes very unusual) languages.

The best known phenomenon of this kind is glossolalia, that is, speaking, or occasionally writing, in what appear to be unexpected and usually unfamiliar languages, mainly but not solely in the context of fervent Pentecostal Christian worship; it is especially associated with the feast of Pentecost itself. At the first Pentecost, after the death of Christ, the Apostles reportedly found themselves speaking in identified languages which they did not personally know. In modern cases of Christian glossolalia, the ‘languages’ used are generally not identified. In some cases, however, speakers and/or some listeners within the communities in question do claim to understand the material (although they cannot usually provide any structural breakdown). And in a few cases it is alleged that, as in the New Testament account, known languages with which the speaker is unfamiliar are produced (as also in xenoglossia, to be discussed later); such cases would obviously be of very great interest if verified. There is considerable overlap between glossolalia and the channelling of speech said to emanate from spirits (more on this later).

In contrast with the situation prevailing with respect to most general topics of skeptical linguistic interest, there is a very substantial literature on glossolalia, including a critical literature, some of it unusually well informed by linguistic expertise (even though many speakers are reluctant to cooperate with researchers, perceiving their performances as sacred). Here I obviously can’t attempt to discuss all the points made in this large literature, but I’ll summarise.

Some writers on this issue are associated with the relevant churches and/or unschooled in linguistics – although some of these are qualified in other scholarly disciplines (notably, and unsurprisingly, theology) and are far from injudicious. Most of these authors argue, with varying degrees of sophistication and persuasiveness, that the phenomenon genuinely involves divine possession and linguistic performances which cannot be explained in mundane terms. Many different ‘other’ languages have been reported in this context. However, linguistic details are seldom given in this branch of the literature, and ‘hard’ evidence that genuine languages not known to the speaker are involved is seldom offered. Some cases allegedly involving a specific ‘other’ language are actively disputed; one notable case of this kind involves Italian.

Morton Kelsey in particular is concerned to treat glossolalia as of divine origin and not merely a type of xenoglossia (see below), even though the latter is of course itself controversial and, if genuine, mysterious. In contrast, the consensus of linguists who have examined the phenomenon is that most if not all glossolalia is phonetic but not linguistic. The utterances are typically analysed as consisting of haphazard sequences of sounds, syllables and other sound-sequences which occur or at least are phonologically possible in languages known to the speaker, with more repetition of syllables and of some individual sounds than is usual in genuinely linguistic material, with very little evidence of morphological structure and often with no specific meanings; at most, there is a general interpretation supporting the relevant community’s belief system. For example, Felicitas Goodman studied events in Pentecostal communities in the USA, the Caribbean and Mexico (including English-, Spanish- and Mayan-speaking groups) and in non-Christian groups from Africa, Borneo, Indonesia and Japan. Her conclusion was that there was no essential distinction between the various sets of practices. Carlyle May came to similar conclusions.

Obviously, some Christian thinkers who accept the divine origin of glossolalia might find these conclusions somewhat unsettling. On the other hand, other Christian thinkers are suspicious (to say the least) of any focus upon special phenomena such as glossolalia at the expense of ‘core’ Christian beliefs and practices.

Some neurological studies have determined that during glossolalic performances activity in the language centres of the brain decreases, while activity in the emotional centres increases.

Watson Mills and William J. Samarin provide linguistically informed discussions of glossolalia. Samarin analyzes allegedly xenoglossic cases sympathetically but comes to the view that none of them can be regarded as demonstrated. As noted, there are some overtly skeptical accounts of glossolalia. Jean-Jacques Courtine provides a useful compilation of work in French on glossolalia.

More next time, when I’ll turn to oral ‘channelling’, written ‘channelling’, ‘automatic writing’ etc. in non-glossolalic contexts.


2 Responses to channelled languages and similar phenomena 1 (non-historical ‘fringe’ linguistics 10)

  1. Supriem Rockefeller says:

    Thanks for this post, though some more detailed bibliography would be appriciated (it’s not that easy to track every text just by the author’s name).

    • marknewbrook says:

      Yes, I will add some refs where pos.  Meanwhile, anyone needing a specific ref should ask me!  Cheers!  Mark

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