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.

Glôssa 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 glôssa has to properly reflect English literary tradition, linguistic changes over the last 200 years, historical and political influences and adherence to the intended meaning penned by the original authors.

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

The word tongues, which is seldom used in our modern language to specifically mean 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 contemporary literature is it used as the predominant descriptor.

As I have worked over both Greek and Latin Patristic texts, from the likes of Greek writers such as Irenaeous, 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 simply 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 that. An adjective was added later on in the English Bible, but this had different political motivations altogether — it was a direct shot against the authority of the Catholic Church and its control over the masses by its exclusive use of Latin in church affairs.

Secondly, one must keep in mind that the noun language was the dominant English word used to translate glôssa/γλῶσσα before the introduction of the Geneva Bible in 1534.

More detailed information on this change can be found in a previous post The Unknown Tongues in the English Bible.

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 prefers 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.

Another similar problem is using the catch-phrase gift of tongues. In religious circles gift of tongues is typically used to describe the currently practiced phenomena in pentecostal and charismatic churches. There is a problem with this because it is too exclusive and hardly open to any scrutiny. The Corinthian tongues church problem and the tongues of fire at Pentecost may not be related. There are a variety of different expressions about speaking in tongues over the centuries that it is dangerous to lump them all into one simplistic category.

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 narrow modern definition. 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. However, current religious tradition extends it beyond this realm. 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. ■

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

Charles Sullivan is a researcher and writer on topics of textual criticism, linguistics, theology, Christian mysticism and philosophy. He also frequently likes to delve into contemporary social and ethical issues from a faith perspective.

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