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

From a Greek Interlinear translation I see that the Greek word ‘glossa’, translated “tongues,” literally means “languages.” Within the context of Acts chapter 2, I take that to mean the disciples spoke in other known languages, and that they were understood, even though those disciples did not know the language the Holy Spirit prompted them to speak.

However, some denominations use the expression “speaking in tongues” to mean speaking unknown languages. Is this what ‘glossolalia’ means, the phenomenon of speaking in an unknown language?

Does this have the same meaning as intended in Acts 2:4 which says “other tongues”?

3 Answers 3


First, the word, "glossalalia" does not appear anywhere in the NT - it is a modern word that simply means "tongues-speaking"; it is a technical term for those denominations that practice speaking in unknown languages.

Second, there is a significant difference of opinion between two branches of Christianity that believe one of two ideas:

  • That the "glossa" of Acts 2 and 1 Cor 14 are the same
  • That the "glossa" of Acts 2 and 1 Cor 14 are different; specifically that in 1 Cor 14 is discussing (humanly) unknown languages and Acts 2 is discussing known languages.

I will resist the temptation to comment on this matter and concentrate only on the OP's question about whether the phenomenon of Acts 2 indicated known or unknown languages.

Acts 2 - Known or Unknown Languages?

The answer to this question was given some time ago in another question whose accepted answer is reproduced below.

The important point to note here is that Luke is (typically) very careful in the use of his terms when describing what went on at Pentecost. He clearly says that people understood what was said; and more specifically, says that they understood in their own local "dialect". This leaves no room to doubt that what was being said was understood by the hearers.

Now, to what extent the miracle of Pentecost was a miracle of the speakers of the hearers is another matter. Below, I suggest it was some combination of both!

However, for the moment that does not matter. The fact remains that people heard the apostles in their own languages and even their own dialects. Thus, "other tongues/languages" were known human languages in Acts 2.

[NOTE: the Greek word γλῶσσα (glossa), the Latin word lingua, and the English word "tongue" all mean the same thing: either the physical organ of the human body or a human language or language group.]

APPENDIX - Were the "Tongues" of Acts 2 Known or Unknown?

This answer is reproduced from my answer here >> In Acts 2:6, was the miracle in the speaking or the hearing at Pentecost?

The important and critical verse is Acts 2:6 in this passage of v1 - 13.

Acts 2:6 - And when this sound happened, the assembled multitude was bewildered because they were hearing them speaking, each one, in his own dialect. (My translation)

But first some background.

Three times in this passage, Luke uses a variant of the same verb, πληρόω (pléroó) in several cognate forms:

  1. V1, "fulfilled" συμπληροῦσθαι (symplērousthai)
  2. V2, ""it filled" ἐπλήρωσεν (eplērōsen)
  3. V4, "were filled" ἐπλήσθησαν (eplēsthēsan)

Three times the Holy Spirit is recorded as performing a remarkable, supernatural miracle on the assembled group of people:

  1. V3, Tongues of fire "appeared"
  2. V4, They began to "speak" in other languages
  3. V6, They were "hearing" - each in his own dialect (and V8)

Note the important word (unique to Luke) in V6 & V8 "dialect" διαλέκτῳ (dialektō) as distinct from the word for "language" γλῶσσα (glóssa) in V4. "Dialect" here is not just the language group but the particular form of the language unique to each area. As Meyer's commentary observes:

διαλέκτῳ is here also not national language, but dialect (see on Acts 1:19), language in its provincial peculiarity.

Thus, while V9-11 lists 16 language groups, there were probably hundreds of provincial dialects - more than the number of disciples preaching at Pentecost.

Now, the important question is this: Is the "gift of tongues" as recorded in Acts 2:1-13 a miracle of the speaker, or the miracle of the hearer, or both? Based on the above evidence, I would suggest it is BOTH. I am sure (based in 1 Cor 14, etc) that the disciples miraculously spoke other languages, see V4, V11. Equally, the hearers then heard the message proclaimed in their own provincial language dialect, V6, V8.

So Luke is quite precise in his terminology here: The speakers spoke other languages while the hearers heard their own dialects. That is, a miracle of both the speakers and the hearers.

There is a similar miracle, performed by the Holy Spirit, recorded in Rom 8:26 where He (the Holy Spirit) translates the language that a Christian petitioner asks of God:

In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words;

Thus, the miracle of Pentecost is not unique; nor is it beyond the power of omnipotence.

  • Such an impressive wealth of knowledge you have at your command. Tip of the hat. Commented Feb 23, 2023 at 7:19
  • Sorry for not responding sooner, but your appendix has confused me (not difficult to do). The disciples "were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance" (Acts 2:4 KJV). I think Romans 8:26 is specifically about when we pray to God, and isn't about "speaking in tongues". When the Holy Spirit moved believers to "speak in tongues" were they therefore speaking in a known language, intelligible and understood by those who heard it? Is that what 'glossa' means? Or did they speak 'gobbledygook'?
    – Lesley
    Commented Feb 26, 2023 at 13:10
  • 1
    @Lesley - if the disciples spoke "gobbledygook" they would not have been understood by the crowd and the crowd would not have heard them, each in his own dialect. This is further emphasized by the fact that as a result of the preaching, 3000 people were converted to Christ (Acts 2:40) that day. The example from Rom 8 was included to show that the Holy Spirit is capable of enabling people to speak in a foreign language AND to take a speakers words and translate them in the ears of the listener.
    – Dottard
    Commented Feb 26, 2023 at 20:23
  • 1
    My understanding is that the disciples were moved by the Holy Spirit to speak in a known language, one they had never learned, which is referred to as ZENOGLOSSIA. The account in Acts 24 accords with the fact that "God is not the author of confusion" (1 Corinthians 14:33). Yes, 3,000 persons were converted to Christ that day - good point. This is quite different, as far as I am aware, to GLOSSOLALIA which is unintelligible (1 Corinthians 14:18-19; 27-28). Thank you.
    – Lesley
    Commented Feb 28, 2023 at 8:33
  • 1
    @Lesley - Many thanks to you too. (I think you possibly mean Xenoglossia.)
    – Dottard
    Commented Feb 28, 2023 at 9:08

To add some additional information, the term "glossalalia" does not actually exist at all in any Greek text - not just the New Testament, but neither the Septuagint, Patristic writings, or any other Greek writings that have come down from antiquity.

The term was coined by by Charles Hard (1839-1935), an American linguist, educator and missionary, who introduced the word in an article entitled "Christianity in India" in the journal Missionary Review of the World (1879):

It is a phenomenon of no uncommon occurrence in connection with revivals, that certain persons should speak in languages unknown to themselves or their auditors. It is supposed to be the immediate effect of the Holy Ghost, who inspires the person speaking with a knowledge of a language he has never learned. The speaker is always in an ecstatic state, his countenance is lighted up, and he seems to be lifted up above the world. The language spoken is not one of the great living languages of the earth, and is not articulate or intelligible, yet it has the character of a language, and is called by the writer "glossolalia," or speaking with tongues. The phenomenon is not confined to Christianity, but has been known to occur in other religions, and in some forms of hysteria. It is a curious and interesting psychological fact, which deserves further investigation.

Hard was an interesting character. He spent over 30 years in India, working primarily in the Madras Presidency (now Tamil Nadu), He was fluent in several Indian languages and his linguistic research was in the area of so-called Dravidian languages (e.g. Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam), which are spoken primarily in South India. He published several books and articles on Tamil grammar and syntax, and he was recognized as one of the leading experts on Dravidian languages in his time.

  • 1
    That is a most useful insight into the origins of the term "glossalalia" and I appreciate your input. Thank you.
    – Lesley
    Commented Apr 22, 2023 at 8:02

1 Corinthians 14:2

Speaking in an unknown language is for real.. But whenever anyone speaks in an unknown language around others there must be an interpreter.


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