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"...another reason I'm intrigued with the hanged of Salem, especially the women, is that a number of them aroused suspicion in the first place because they were financially independent, or sharp-tongued, or kept to themselves. In other words, they were killed off for the same sort of life I live right now but with longer skirts and fewer cable channels." Sarah Vowell, The partly cloudy patriot.


Religion question: inspired by Borat

I saw Borat yesterday. I didn't really expect to like it - but I sort of did. Well, I liked the first 50 minutes or so when I thought it was veering more toward commentary on racism, xenophobia, and homophobia. But then it shifted some more toward the sexual and scatalogical jokes, and I was less enthused. I do recommend it - and especially the "censored" sections on the dvd.

But here's something I don't understand. Borat went to a pentecostal church, and I got confused. I looked up pentecostals on wikipedia - knowing that's not the ultimate resource - but it helps. Only so much though because I know literally nothing about christianity, the bible, and evangelicalism.

Okay - so this speaking in tongue thing. I don't get it. Is there any evidence it is real? I mean, in wikipedia, they say there are translators - but is there a real language? Have any linguists studied it to see if there is a real language there?

But more importantly - I can't find anything out about the hairdos. Superficial, I know. But I was confused that the women all had the long hair and long skirts I associate with what I thought was a very different religious group. Is that pentecostal? Nothing in wikipedia about it. Because in Jesus Camp (my other main source of information about evangelical christians) they spoke in tongues and did the falling and having fits thing - but they didn't seem to follow any kind of appearance-driven rules.



At 5:06 AM, Blogger StyleyGeek said...

I felt pretty much the same way you did about Borat.

I'm no expert on Pentecostal churches, but I've been to a few (I was a Jesus Camp kid) and my uncle is a Pentecostal pastor. In my experience there are a lot of different types of churches that self-identify into that category, and some but not all of them do have strong cultural pressures on women to wear their hair long, eschew make up and skimpy clothes, and so they do have a high percentage of women like the ones you describe. The churches I know like this don't prescribe this look explicitly, but the individual members tend to be outspokenly judgmental about women who don't fit their church's norm.

As for the speaking in tongues thing, the people I have heard do it all sound extremely fake to me. Certainly what I have heard does not resemble any human language. But there are people who I respect (religious people, not linguists) who believe it is a real phenomenon, and so out of respect for them, I wouldn't go as far as to reject out of hand the notion that the phenomenon might exist (but I would say at the very least that there is a lot of pressure on people in these churches to do it---our youth group leader once told us that you can't be a true born-again Christian if you don't speak in tongues---and therefore there are a lot of susceptible people babbling a whole lot of nonsense in an attempt to fit in.)

There are urban legends in the religious community about people who have been speaking in tongues when a visiting random foreigner (usually Chinese in these stories) has jumped up and started translating, and it turned out the first person was speaking Chinese even though they had never learned it. There is the biblical reference that a lot of people rely on that these are the "tongues of men and angels" so if you proved it wasn't any human language or even resembling human language, presumably they would argue this is the language of "angels" instead.

I would love to see some linguistic studies of people speaking in tongues (as much as anything else, I think it would be interesting to shed light on what the fake people come up with either consciously or subconsciously when they feel under pressure to produce something that sounds like another language), but I don't think you'd ever get that past an ethics committee, since I doubt you'd find speakers willing to let themselves be recorded and studied by anyone who was in the least bit skeptical.

At 5:34 AM, Blogger StyleyGeek said...

Whee, okay turns out I was wrong about this maybe not being studied much.

I just did a lit search (you can laugh now) and found a whole heap of stuff. Here is an excerpt from an abstract that made me laugh:

"Glossolalia (speaking in tongues) is a well-researched phenomenon in the West (Europe & America) & has been studied by some scholars from the perspective that it represents an anomalous, aberrant &/or extraordinary psychological behavior."
(From some guy who did his dissertation on Singaporean glossolalia)

And then this study (this is the entire abstract):
"A sophisticated infrared camera measured temperature changes presumed to be related to activation of either the right or left brain hemispheres. Measurements were taken before & after participants spoke in tongues & before & after they read aloud. Results indicated increasing activation of the right hemisphere relative to the left after speaking in tongues & the opposite relation after reading aloud." (Philipchalk and Mueller 2000)


But it turns out that most of the research has been either from the psychological point of view, e.g. about speakers' and witnesses perceptions and of the experience and associated value judgments, or about its social and cultural function in religious networks. It has also been studied within the framework of a general study of rituals (Hutch 1980) and for its connection with Tourette's Syndrome (Womack 1982).

The only linguistic study I have found is Motley 1982, although there must be more because he claims to refute all earlier studies. He says earlier studies showed speaking in tongues was unlike any natural language, but his own study shows that it more like language than not, and less like the speakers' native languages than it is like other languages (this is just the abstract: I have no idea what his evidence is. It is not in a well-known journal, either).

Oh wait, I just found another ref, this time a book review in a well-known linguistics journal. The review is by McElhanon (1976), but annoyingly I can't tell from the abstract what the book is being reviewed.

This is part of the abstract:

"The data include glossas, i.e., glossolalic utterances, from Eng, Dutch, Russian, Spanish, & Turkish speakers. Glossolalia represents a normal & learned behavior. Three chapters provide a linguistic description of glossolalia. A limited number of sounds (usually less than twelve) are built into syllables with the use of alliteration & reduplication (e.g., gamboy, yamboy, hambo). Generally monotonous intonation contours are added by the glossolalist & give the appearance of a lang, but glossolalia always lacks langs central feature--a semantic system. Meaning is emotional & not linguistic. Five chapters deal with the use & functions of glossolalia. Acquisition of glossolalia is often necessary for acceptance or obtaining authority. The work provides information in an area of curiosity for many linguists."

Okay, I'm going to stop now.

At 7:32 AM, Blogger BrightStar said...

I think there are sects (is that the right word) or subsets in most (all?) Christian religions who believe people can do this, not just Pentecostal. I am Catholic, and I was brought into a charismatic prayer group for a while at the end of high school. It mostly consisted of adults older than my parents and then this group of intensely religious high school kids, which seems weird to me now, but felt okay at the time. (I was a lot more relgious when I was younger than I am now, but I'd say now I am still faithful. I don't participate in charismatic prayer now, though...)

Charismatic Catholics pray in some similar ways to Pentecostals, although not identical, and it's kind of like an add-on to being Catholic. You still do the regular Sunday Catholic stuff, like go to mass, but then you have an additional prayer group at least one other night a week. However, not everyone prays in tongues, nor are you told that you are not really born again or whatever (we don't really use the term "born again" in the Catholic church, anyway...) if you don't pray in tongues. We're taught that there are a lot of spiritual gifts, and tongues is one of them, so you may have a different one if you don't pray in tongues. For example, maybe you prophecy, maybe you can interpret tongues, maybe you have wisdom, maybe you heal, and faith is another one of the 9 spiritual gifts, so if you don't do any of these other things, a strong faith is something you might have, so there wasn't real pressure to speak in tongues. Some people did, others did not.

At one point, I thought I did. I still think I did, but I wonder if it was more of an emotional thing than actual words. I have to say, though, the syllables did not sound like any language I had heard before, and I did not really have control over what I was saying, nor do I feel like I forced myself to do it. In grad school, I had a roommate and she was from Cyprus and when she would speak Greek to her friends, it was the first time I had heard any syllables that sounded like the tongues I was speaking, but I'm not saying I was speaking Greek. I have no idea whether or not I was speaking a real language, and I'm okay with the idea that the language itself might not have been a real one. I haven't done this since high school, though.

Regarding the appearance of the women, is this an urban versus rural thing? I haven't seen Borat, but are rural Pentecostals more likely to have the women with long hair, etc.?

At 6:48 PM, Blogger Anastasia said...

How timely...we had a random visiting priest today (I'm episcopalian) and he was speaking in tongues! Bright* is right, you can find examples of this in different churches but pentecostalism is strongly identified with it.

pentecostal churches are often associated with holiness movements, which is where you see the long skirts and the long hair. you can also find those threads in other denominations but, again, they are strongly identified with pentecostalism.

styley went to town on the lit review! I was going to add that a friend of mine works on glossolalia from a sociological perspective. There are studies that trace the specific utterances used by individual to the communities where they learned the practice, including the preferred patterns and phrases used by individuals in those communities. I can't cite it but I do know there is some work that looks at this in terms of community formation and passing ritual activity from one person to the next.

I have spoken in tongues and I'm not prepared to say what that was all about but I don't know that it was a language. It is supposes to be, although some argue from the New Testament that they spoke in languages they didn't already know as opposed to ecstatic utterances.

last thing, historically, the New Testament practice is probably connecting to Greek and Roman practices of prophecy, which also required translation by a ritual specialist and which were also ecstatic utterances.

At 6:49 PM, Blogger Anastasia said...

connected, not connecting


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