What Is Glossolalia?

by Jack Wellman · Print Print · Email Email

What is Glossolalia? Is it even biblical?


What is Glossolalia? It’s said to be some type of phenomenon that is practiced by some Pentecostal and charismatic churches. It’s where someone or several people are speaking in tongues while in worship service, but in a tongue that’s unknown to the audience. Some may try to interpret the tongues but sometimes no one does. Glossolalia is basically a belief held that the church still speaks in unknown or other tongues, and sometimes it’s only known to God. Glossolalia comes from the Greek words, “glōssais lalein” and means “to speak in other languages,” so the idea that the tongue is unknown is not supported by Scripture. Glossolalia is distinct from “xenolalia” or “xenoglossy,” which is when a language is being spoken is a natural language previously unknown to the speaker, so there are differences. God may use someone to speak in another language that they don’t’ know to share Christ (“xenolalia” or “xenoglossy,”), but speaking in an unknown tongue to no one in particular is not biblical, so what does the Bible say about speaking in tongues or “glossolalia?”

“And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:4).

Unknown Tongue

Many who believe in speaking in tongues point to a Scripture that says they can speak in an unknown tongue. The verse they cite is from the Apostle Paul who wrote, “For he that speaketh in an unknown tongue speaketh not unto men, but unto God: for no man understandeth him; howbeit in the spirit he speaketh mysteries” (1 Cor 14:2), but that’s a very bad translation because the word in the King James is in italics, and that means it’s not in the original manuscripts, so the verse about speaking in “an unknown tongue” is not biblical because it’s not in the Bible. The ESV does a better job as it says, “For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit” (1 Cor 14:2), so was the tongue unknown to those who heard it in the New Testament church? Read on!

Known Languages

On the Day of Pentecost, “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:4), and the word used for “tongues” means “language,” and that makes sense because of what happens next. After they hear the tongues, the “Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians [said] we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God” (Acts 2:9-11), so it wasn’t an unknown tongue, and they didn’t’ need an interpreter to understand what they were saying. That’s because “each one was hearing them speak in his own language” (Acts 2:6). This was a work of the Holy Spirit and not man. It must have been a miracle in the hearing of the listeners because each one of these many different men, with many diverse languages, all understood what they were saying…down to the last man, but notice that the men from the other nations didn’t join in, and they certainly didn’t start speaking in tongues. There simply heard the gospel in language that is native to them…and that appears to be the primary use for the gift of tongues in the early church.

The Source

Some theologians believe that tongues may be satanic in a few cases. When some people start to work themselves up into speaking in tongues, they can almost fall into a trance…almost emptying their minds in order to get in touch with the Spirit, but there’s another spirit out there too, and he’s very evil. On more than one occasion, recorded transcripts of a tongue speaker revealed that he was speaking actual blasphemes of God, but it was in Latin, so these tongues were certainly not from God, and if not from God, then from whom? Years ago I attended a charismatic church and I was cajoled and pressured into trying to speak in tongues, but I wasn’t able to. They told me I was not yet filled with the Spirit, but neither of these ideas is biblical, because whoever believes in Jesus Christ will be saved and has already received the Holy Spirit. Sometimes pride induces speaking in tongues, and a few have even confessed that they made it all up, in order to fit in at the church. They also lost a lot of teaching because during sermons, and even in Sunday school, some would begin speaking in tongues when the pastor or teachers were talking. That’s not of God either, I don’t believe.


If you read the Book of Acts, you can see that tongues start to disappear. The same thing is noted with miracles, but it’s also noticeable in the New Testament writings of Paul, Peter, John, and James. Toward the middle and end of the New Testament, there is a silence about tongues, but can God still use the gift of tongues today? Yes, but I believe it will be done biblically, speaking to someone in their own language, and in a language they can understand; otherwise, it is of little use to them, so God is God. He does what He pleases, but the idea of speaking in tongues in and during worship service and with several speaking at the same time, was not found in the early church. And, it draws attention away from Christ and the Word of God, and draws attention to those who are speaking in tongues. It sometimes distracts the members from hearing the teaching of the Word, and it occasionally makes someone feel like they aren’t worthy as a Christian since they’ve never spoken in tongues. Jesus told us how others will know that we are His disciples, and it wasn’t tongues, it wasn’t healing, and it wasn’t miracles. They will know us by our fruits, but mostly, “all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35), and love is a lot more than just words.

Here is some related reading for you: What is Speaking in Tongues? A Biblical Analysis

Resource – Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), Crossway Bibles. (2007). ESV: Study Bible: English standard version. Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Bibles. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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