Saturday, April 8, 2017

Personality Quirks: G is for Glossolalia

Are you a writer looking for some interesting personality traits and quirks to create characters? Or maybe you’re a logophile, someone who loves words, and wants to collect more of them. Either way, you’ve come to the right place.

Today’s word has religious connotations. Glossolalia, known in the vernacular as “speaking in tongues”, has fascinated both the faithful and linguists for some time. Another term you may have seen for this condition is xenoglossia.

The speaker vocalizes what sounds like a foreign (thus, xeno) language. Except it’s not. The speaker is in a trance-like state of spirituality. Sometimes called “prayer language”, there has been debate about whether the utterances are a genuine human language, a sacred language, a divine language unknown to the speaker, or nonsense words.

Most commonly associated with Pentecostal and charismatic churches, the word-like speech flows from the speaker effortlessly, as if not being made-up but as in actual recognizable speech.

Glossolalia is from Greek glōssa language, tongue + lalia speech.’

I can’t think of a TV, book, or real life character who exhibits this condition, but we’ve all seen it portrayed at some time. Seeming nonsense streams forth in a fluid vocalization of speech-like syllables that no one else but the speaker understands and sometimes even the speaker admits to not knowing what heesh said.

I can see several ways to depict glossolalia in novels.

In science fiction, paranormal, or fantasy, the character, an atheist, finds shimself channeling a foreign/alien entity. The character’s glossolalia might indicate a warning or information or even an attempt to persuade. Does your character or a linguist (a la Arrival) figure out the message in time? Or is there an intermediary (a la Ghost) who translates?

In contemporary fiction, your character might be a charlatan bilking others in tent revivals or a mega-church with TV viewers. The glossolalic character might have an epiphany about the effect on someone who believes that the glossolalic speech is authentic. A crisis ensues when the person is disenchanted upon discovering the truth.

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Glossolalia is a real thing and writers can use it for character development from @RomanceRighter


  1. Interesting word. I could see it fitting into SciFi easily.

    1. I agree, Patricia. Pretty much any kind of speculative ficiton, right?