Thursday, November 17, 2011

What are Glossolalia and Xenolalia?

Glossolalia: In general coming from the Greek, "glossolalia" can refer to 1) speaking in either a variety of different languages or 2) speaking in incomprehensible sounds/gibberish/non-real languages.
Specifically, "glossolalia" in common English properly refers to 1) making noises, including bodily noises, sighs, moans, etc., or 2) speaking in gibberish/non-real languages

Xenolalia: "xenolalia" refers to speaking in many real languages. In apostolic times, this would refer to  having an infused gift/learning of a language/number of languages (see Acts 2). In current times, "xenolalia" refers to the ability to learn foreign languages; some individuals learn non-native languges with ease while others struggle/find it impossible. Those who find it relatively easy/accessible are said to have the gift of "xenolalia." It can be considered a subcategory of the general term "glossolalia," but for specific usage, "glossolalia" and "xenolalia" denote two different things.

St. Paul did not have this distinction, so interpretation of the passages in which he refers to speaking in tongues must use the surrounding context, both textual and Christian, to determine which type of tongues he speaks about.

Gingrich, F. Wilbur. Shorter Lexicon of the Greek New Testament. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983
"Glossolalia" and "Tongues, Gift of" in Catholic Biblical Encyclopedia: Old and New Testaments, John E. Steinmueller and Kathryn Sullivan, (New York: Joseph Wagner, 1956), 258-9 & 635-6.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Tongues in 1 Corinthians

St. Paul, writing in Greek, did not have the distinction between "glossolalia" and "xenolalia" as we do in English. As a result, one must carefully analyze the text in order to determine the type of speech to which he refers.

What does St. Paul mean by "speaking in tongues" in 1 Corinthians 12:10?

In the original Greek text, St. Paul uses the word γλῶσσα (glosson), meaning "tongue" or "language" as in a foreign language. Here, that word is part of the phrase γένη γλῶσσα (gene glosson), which means the ecstatic speech overcome by strong emotion in cultic context. Some would assert that this speech, referred to as speaking in tongues, is what some Pentecostals or other charismatic-type individuals experience in prayer, but this is not the case. The distinction concerns two different kinds of speaking in tongues: "glossolalia" and "xenolalia."

The speaking in tongues mentioned in this passage and many other places in the New Testament is a true charism of the Holy Spirit. It is an articulate, intelligible utterance that could be interpreted and not signs or unconnected words or an enigmatic language. As many of the Fathers and other sources relate, what Paul refers to is not unintelligible but something interpretable. 
In the New Testament, with the exception of Luke 24:27, the phrase "to interpret" always refers to the translation from a foreign language to the vernacular. Since Paul refers to the interpretation of these tongues, it must mean that they are foreign languages and not unintelligible utterances. In other words, "speaking in tongues" means speaking in languages that are real but previously unknown to the individual. In this sense, the gift is more properly termed in English, "xenolalia."

Basically, the distinction comes from the English language and not the Greek. The English language possesses several words that one could argue fit into this context, but only "xenolalia" satisfies the word for "interpret" that Paul uses within the same sentence. This, along with the consistent understanding in the New Testament of speaking in foreign, intelligible languages, means that Paul refers here to speaking in previously unknown foreign languages.

What about the types of tongues mentioned in 1 Corinthians 14?

A key passage for an accurate understanding of St. Paul is verses 9-11: 

If you, because of speaking in tongues, do not utter intelligible speech, how will anyone know what is being said? For you will be talking to the air. It happens that there are many different languages in the world, and none is meaningless; but if I do not know the meaning of a language, I shall be a foreigner to one who speaks it, and one who speaks it a foreigner to me.

Clearly St. Paul speaks here in reference to actual languages (v. 10), and this means that the gift of tongues refers to "xenolalia." As stated above, the multiple references to "interpreting" (vv. 5, 13, 27-28) all use the same Greek verb that implies the interpretation/translation of a foreign language. As far as I understand, this verb does not leave open the possibility of interpretation of non-real languages/gibberish (glossolalia). For consistency's sake, any time "tongue" is referenced, it means "xenolalia."

This position, while rarely- if ever- found among recent and current interpretations of Sacred Scripture, is held by the great majority of Patristic commentators, especially the Saints. It would be very strange for St. Paul to use the same language of "gift of tongues" to refer to something other than the obvious xenolalic gift of tongues in Acts 2. One could argue that St. Paul wrote specifically for the Corinthians and they may have possessed some specific gift of tongues, but St. Paul knew well that his letters were read in more communities than simply the one to whom they were addressed. As a result, he would not write anything that would potentially confuse the gift of tongues ("xenolalia") and "glossolalia."


While it is true that certain forms of glossolalia are prayer- such as groans, sighs, etc.- these are not proclaimed in public, because they cannot be interpreted for the good of all. When St. Paul refers to the gift of tongues, he refers to the ability to speak multiple, real languages. This interpretation  is based mainly off the verb for "translating/interpreting" as well as other references in the New Testament and Patristic commentary. In modern times many conclude that St. Paul refers to "glossolalia" and the ability to interpret them, but there does not appear to be any support for this position within the text itself.

"Gift of Tongues."
Gingrich, F. Wilbur. Shorter Lexicon of the Greek New Testament. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983
"Glossolalia" and "Tongues, Gift of" in Catholic Biblical Encyclopedia: Old and New Testaments, John E. Steinmueller and Kathryn Sullivan, (New York: Joseph Wagner, 1956), 258-9 & 635-6.
Hahn, Scott. "Tongues, Gift of." In The Catholic Bible Dictionary, 921-922. New York: Doubleday, 2009.
New American Bible.