The Difference Between Language and Tongues

Finding an acceptable solution for the greek keyword glôssa γλῶσσα and why christian doctrine of tongues is the best catch-phrase for the subject.

Γλῶσσα is pivotal for the doctrine of tongues. This word is found in Paul’s address to the Corinthians, Luke’s description of the first Pentecost and subsequent similar narratives in his Book of Acts. This noun is further used by later Greek ecclesiasts and authors on the subject.

The challenge is how a contemporary researcher is to translate this word without a modern bias.

The translation of γλῶσσα has to reflect English literary tradition, a variety of linguistic changes both in the Greek and English usage, and understand both historical and political influences. One always has to be cognizant about the intended meaning penned by the original authors and how the meaning has shifted over the years.

When γλῶσσα appears, or if it is found in a Latin text, which is lingua, my mind always wants to automatically translate it as tongue.

But is that right, or am I culturally conditioned?

Γλῶσσα as language

As I have worked over both Greek and Latin Patristic texts, from the likes of Greek writers such as Irenaeus, Origen, Gregory Nazianzus, Cyril of Alexandria, Epiphanius, John of Damascus, etc., to the Latin writers of Augustine, the Venerable Bede, Thomas Aquinas, the Ambrosiaster authors, and many more, they do not contain references to the gift being a strange, mystical or heavenly language that needs a new definition. It merely means a human language to them.

To advance such a thought that it was different from a human language, they would have had to add an adjective to both the Greek or Latin words for language to make it distinct. They never did. The same too would have to occur in both the Latin and Syriac Bible translations. This never occurred.

The Latin theologian and writer, Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, wrote extensively on the topic. The Latin word for language, lingua, meant human language and nothing more with no historical antecedents proving otherwise. If Augustine thought lingua to be an otherworld phenomenon, he would have been forced to use an adjective or spend considerable time explaining the new concept so that his audience would understand. He never did this.

The fourth century Greek church leader, Gregory Nazianzus, connects γλῶσσα with foreign languages. There is absolutely no notion by him of any alternative:

Ἐλάλουν μὲν οὖν ξέναις γλώσσαις, καὶ οὐ πατρίοις. . .1

they were speaking in foreign languages, and not in the accustomed ones. . .2

Tongues an outdated English word

The word tongues, which is seldom used in our modern language to refer to a modern, regular or contemporary language, is usually understood to be something out-of-this-world, unusual or even weird. Sometimes it is used a synonym to language, but rarely in modern literature is it used as the predominant descriptor.

Secondly, one must keep in mind that the noun language was the dominant English word used to translate γλῶσσα before the popular Geneva Bible was published in 1534. Ever since that time, especially after the introduction of the King James Bible, whenever γλῶσσα appears in the New Testament text, the translator and later, the religious mind automatically thinks tongues.

It would not be fair to translate the church fathers on the subject using tongues instead of languages. It significantly changes the nuance of the text when it is done.

One could argue that I am forcing my own interpretation on the text. However, it is believed that language is more accurate to what the writers meant. So, sticking to the facts, language is the word of choice on the majority of occasions. My own sentiments would like to adhere to the traditional English text and prefer tongues, but that simply isn’t the right thing to do. Every once in a while tongues is inserted within the many articles generated for the Gift of Tongues Project for stylistic purposes when the noun language appears too often in a text.

Therefore Tongues is no longer a good word choice for English translations. A change from tongues to language is closer to the Greek and better assists the reader in understanding the text. This immediately erases many incorrect presuppositions.

Language vs glossolalia

The consistent message among the first fourteen centuries demonstrated that it was a divinely inspired foreign language miraculously spoken or heard. This definition is so strong that it is unnecessary to build a thesis. If you parse through the Gift of Tongues Project Table of Contents, you will see a myriad of texts and authors that linearly line up in this trajectory for over 1500 years.

Γλῶσσα as glossolalia was not what Paul had in mind. The doctrine of glossolalia first occurred in the 1800s.3 If the miraculous event of Pentecost did not occur as Luke narrated it, then glossolalia is the valid alternative.

Glossolalia traces the history of tongues through a different paradigm. The promoters of this doctrine start with the pagan prophetesses at Delphi4 and then identify the progression through the Montanist movement.5 This theory neglects important pieces of ecclesiastical literature or church history on the subject. Γλῶσσα hardly, if at all, appears in the key texts they cite. The Patristic citations they do reference are weak, and the important ones are ignored. 6

Language VS prayer language

Neither can one succinctly state that γλῶσσα was a heavenly prayer language from the text. For Paul to infer such a reading, this would force him to use an adjective along with γλῶσσα to make this distinction. He did not. Yes, the English texts have the idea of unknown tongue, but this idiom does not exist in the Greek. This is part of our English Bible history which played an important part of the Protestant revolt against the Catholic Church.7

Γλῶσσα as foreign language

On the other hand, while I was translating a Catena with a number of earlier Church fathers cited relating to I Corinthians 14:13, γλῶσσα infers foreign language without adding an adjective.8 I think it is allowable to translate γλῶσσα as foreign language in this context.

The languages of Pentecost and Corinth

We cannot suppose that the γλῶσσα of Corinth is the same phenomenon as Pentecost. The fourth century Bishop of Salamis, Epiphanius, would chide the modern reader that makes such a parallel. He saw Corinth entirely separate from Pentecost. The tongues of Corinth were ethnic conflicts between Attic, Doric, and Aeolic Greeks on translating the teachings spoken in Hebrew.9

Gift of Tongues, glossolalia, and christian doctrine of tongues

Another similar problem is using the catch-phrase gift of tongues. In religious circles, the idiom, gift of tongues, is typically used to describe the currently practiced phenomena in Pentecostal and Charismatic churches. Gift of tongues has an established contemporary viewpoint and does not allow for the traditional practices of this rite throughout the centuries to be part of the definition.

Many scholars use glossolalia as the conventional phrase. For the most part, I try to avoid gift of tongues and glossolalia because they already subscribe to a predetermined outcome. One will see the christian doctrine of tongues more commonly in my works because it is more comprehensive and inclusive of different epochs and traditions. It also allows one to trace the evolution of this doctrine over the centuries without having to subscribe to a particular set of doctrines or force an outcome.

A significant problem with avoiding gift of tongues and glossolalia and using the newly coined, the christian doctrine of tongues, is with the Google search engine. By minimizing the phrases gift of tongues and glossolalia Google Search ranks all my articles lower because the general readership definitively links this subject with gift of tongues and glossolalia.

Gift of tongues has a proper place when referencing the problem tongues of Corinth, but it does not extend beyond that. The gift of tongues and the Gift of Tongues Project are often used here as transitory phrases. It is a beginning point to bring the reader into a much deeper awareness of the christian doctrine of tongues that has developed over 2000 years of church history.


Yes, we are culturally conditioned through centuries of English Bible tradition to read the γλῶσσα passages as tongues. However, Greek, Latin, and Syriac tradition do not parallel such a meaning. They all point to human language. Language is the proper word choice for the translation of γλῶσσα. ■

For more information:

  • The following is a pentecostal review of the word tongues in the English Bible: Tongues or Languages? Contextual Consistency in the Translation of Acts 2* by Jenny Everts. Journal of Pentecostal Theology. 4. April 1994. Pg. 71–80
  1. A portion from Nazianzus’ Oration XLI — In Pentecosten. The source texts and a digitized copy is found at Gregory Nazianzus’ Oration 41:15–16 in the Greek
  2. My translation. An official translation which corroborates is found at Alex Poulos’ website; Gregory’s Oration on Pentecost, a translation from 41:15–16
  3. See An Introduction to the History of Glossolalia for substantiation.
  4. Learn more about this aspect by reading Delphi Prophetesses and Christian Tongues
  5. Read A Critical Look at Tongues and Montanism for further documentation.
  6. A History of Glossolalia: Patristic Citation delves deeply into the problem of Higher Criticism scholars neglecting ecclesiastical texts on the topic of speaking in tongues.
  7. The history of the unknown tongues idiom is covered in The Unknown Tongues of the English Bible
  8. Catenae Graecorum patrum in Novum Testamentum.Tomus V. In Epistolas S. Pauli Ad Corinthios. Cramer, J. A. (John Anthony) ed. Oxonii: E Typographeo Academico. 1844. Pg. 267
  9. Go to Epiphanius on the Problem Tongues of Corinth and the following series of articles and source texts for further information.

5 thoughts on “The Difference Between Language and Tongues”

  1. This is a serious problem. If the universal tradition of the Church meant the extraordinary and miraculous gift of being able to speak or hear and understand previously unlearned human “languages” when using the terms of Luke in Acts 2, then “tongues” should be avoided in contemporary parlance, because that’s not what charismatics exhibit when speaking or praying in what they call “tongues.” So what word should be substituted? As you suggest, “glossolalia” doesn’t work, since that is a later interpolation with its own biases. If it were not so pejorative, one might think of using the term “babel,” since unintelligible vocalizations are the reverse of the unative miracle of Acts 3. But then the question arises: what do you do with those who claim “words of knowledge” or the ability to “interpret” these unintelligible vocalizations which scientific analysts assure us lack the semantic structure of genuine languages? The only logically consistent thing would be to dismiss it as fraud, deception, illusion, or … perhaps in rare cases, a divinely infused revelation that God actually intends to communicate. What other alternatives are there?

  2. Dear Charles thank you for your attentions . But now I would refer to my new email address. Yours A. H. Garroussi

  3. Reading your sight with great interest. Greatly appreciate your truthful objectivity reflected in your choice of “languages” over “tongues”, despite your personal experiential proclivity. As a former practitioner of the modern interpretation of tongues, now an Orthodox priest laboring over this issue, I deeply appreciate your efforts, and the apparent objectivity. Thank you!

  4. How does this interpretation of tongues apply to 1 Corinthians 14??
    Paul goes to great lengths to explain that it is not a human language, but something only God will understand. Uttering mysteries of the Spirit.

    • Paul was speaking metaphorically. Anyone who speaks to another in a foreign language that the recipient does not understand is missing the mark. It is mysterious to everyone else and the only one who benefits of such a display is God. Paul is not referencing a mystical rite of tongues but rather addressing a liturgical problem. The ancient Jewish synagogue had the practice of a speaker or reader speaking in Hebrew and an interpreter simultaneously translating it into the local language. The problem in Corinth was that they could not agree on which Greek language ought to be the standard language of interpretation. There were factions arguing for or against Attic, Aeolic, or their native Doric. This is all covered in the many articles found in the Corinth from Jewish Liturgical Perspectives section.


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