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Xenoglossy ( ; from Greek ξένος - xenos, "foreign" and γλῶσσα - glossa, "tongue, language") is the putative paranormal phenomenon in which a person is able to speak a language they could not have acquired by natural means. For example, a person who speaks German fluently, but who has never studied it, never been to a German-speaking country, and never associated with German speakers, would be said to exhibit xenoglossy. The existence of xenoglossy is not generally accepted by linguists and psychologists (Samarin 1976, Thomason 1984, 1987, 1996). However, psychiatrist and paranormal researcher Ian Stevenson documented several cases that he considered authentic (Stevenson, 2001).

In religion

The New Testament claims that xenoglossy took place at Pentecost. The Book of Acts (2:1-13) describes Galileans speaking in non-native languages drawn from all over the Roman Empire, so that visitors to Jerusalem could understand them declaring "the mighty works of God". The visitors included Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judeamarker, Cappadociamarker, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egyptmarker, Cyrenian Libyamarker, and Romemarker. The author of the Book of Acts calls this phenomenon "speaking in tongues", and other instances of it are mentioned in Acts 10:46; 19:6 and 1 Corinthians (12-14). The description of what happened at Pentecost is different from what is observed in modern glossolalia (what Pentecostal and charismatic Christians call 'speaking in tongues'), although Christians who practice glossolalia today link what they do to what happened at Pentecost.

Cases subjected to scientific investigation

Scientific research into xenoglossy is quite rare. Ian Stevenson, a parapsychologist and psychiatrist at the University of Virginia, claimed there were just a handful of suggestive cases. These included two hypnotic regression cases where the subject could converse with people speaking the foreign language, instead of merely being able to recite foreign words. Sarah Thomason, a linguist at the University of Michigan, reanalysed these cases.

  • Swarnlatta Mishra: A girl in India who lived entirely among Hindi-speaking people but was able to sing songs in Bengali, as identified by Professor P. Pal of Itachuna College in West Bengalmarker, who studied the case after Professor Stevenson and transcribed some of the songs.

  • Sharada: Uttara Huddar was a woman in India who normally spoke Marathi. While in hospital undergoing psychiatric treatment, she began manifesting a personality called Sharada, who spoke in Bengali. Stevenson had recordings analysed by Bengali speakers, who disagreed among themselves about the subject's fluency. It cannot be ruled out that the subject may have learned Bengali earlier in life: both she and her father had a long-standing interest in Bengal, her home city had 1% native Bengali speakers, she had read Bengali novels in translation, and she herself had taken lessons in reading Bengali.

  • Jensen, an American woman who presented the character of a Swedish farmer while under hypnosis conducted by her physician husband. Stevenson reported that the subject was able to converse in Swedish, albeit not fluently. However Thomason's reanalysis concluded that Jensen could not convincingly be claimed to speak Swedish; in the interview Stevenson studied in depth, though Jensen had a total vocabulary of about 100 words, only about 60 were used before interlocutors used them, and, as one of Stevenson's consultants pointed out, this reduced to 31 after eliminating cognates. Jensen also gave no complex sentences, mostly gave one or two word answers, and - as acknowledged by Stevenson - the subject's poor pronunciation was covered by correct spelling in the transcripts. Thomason mentions, however, that two of Stevenson's consultants praised Jensen's Swedish accent, and one claimed that only a native speaker could pronounce the word 'seven' correctly as Jensen does. Furthermore, she says that Stevenson's efforts to rule out fraud are convincing. Jensen's lack of understanding of Swedish was such that he answers ‘my wife’ to a question about what he would pay for some item at the market. Linguist William Samarin drew the same conclusion as Thomason.

  • Gretchen, an American woman named Dolores Jay who presented the life of a teenage girl in Germany while hypnotized by her Methodist minister husband. Stevenson reported that the subject was able to converse in German. Mrs. Jay did study a German dictionary at one point during the sessions, but Stevenson pointed out that she had already spontaneously produced 206 words before this event. Again Thomason's reanalysis, while acknowledging that the evidence against fraud was convincing, concluded that Gretchen could not converse in German. Her speech was largely the repetition of German questions with different intonation, or utterances of one or two words. Her "German vocabulary is minute, and her pronunciation is spotty". When asked what she had for breakfast, she answers ‘Bettzimmer’, which is a non-existent word made up of the two words for 'bed' and 'room'. Moreover she had some previous exposure to German in TV programmes and a "look at a German book".

The Rosemary case

In 1931 a young girl from Blackpoolmarker, Englandmarker began to speak in an ancient Egyptian dialect. She claimed to be under the influence of the personality of Babylonian princess and Pharaoh's Amenhotep's III wife Telika-Ventiu, who supposedly lived about 3300 years ago. Rosemary stated that she "hears" the Egyptian words clairaudiently and repeated them aloud. During more than a thousand language tests, the girl had spoken some 5000 phrases and short sentences in the old Egyptian language. They were recorded phonetically and the first 800 of them were later identified and translated by an Egyptologist Mr. Hulme. He claimed that Rosemary's speech substantially and consistently conformed to what Egyptologists know today of the ancient Egyptian tongue. She was able to respond to situational conversations presented her and translate Egyptian words and phrases. Three books on the Rosemary case have been published and two gramophone discs of xenoglossy have been recorded. However Rosemary was never tested by independent witnesses and the claims were not submitted to independent scholarly inquiry.

Unsubstantiated cases

Proper scientific investigation of reports of xenoglossy is rare. More typical are press reports like that of Czech speedway rider Matěj Kůs from Pilsenmarker, who, in September 2007 at the age of 18 reportedly awoke after a crash and was able to converse in perfect English. His ability did not last long and he was unable to remember anything from this episode. The press reports of his fluency in English are based entirely on the reports of his Czech team-mates. There is no record of his allegedly fluent speech or report by a native English speaker.


Xenoglossy plays a major role in Neal Stephenson's novel Snow Crash, in which those exposed to the patterns generated by the eponymous computer virus begin to speak in the Sumerian language, spreading a destructive meme associated with the goddess Asherah. Asherah is known to Old Testament scholars of the Bible as the goddess Ashteroth, one of the enemies of God of Israel.

See also



  • Samarin, William J. Review of Ian Stevenson Xenoglossy: A Review and Report of a Case. Language 52.1.270-274. (1976)
  • Stevenson, Ian. Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation. (1966). (Second revised and enlarged edition 1974), University of Virginia Press, ISBN 0813908728
  • Stevenson, Ian. Xenoglossy: A Review and Report of a Case. Charlotte: University Press of Virginia. (1974).
  • Stevenson, Ian. Unlearned Language: New Studies in Xenoglossy. (1984). University of Virginia Press, ISBN 0813909945
  • Stevenson, Ian. Children Who Remember Previous Lives: A Quest of Reincarnation. (2001). McFarland & Company, ISBN 0-7864-0913-4
  • Thomason, Sarah G. "Do you remember your previous life's language in your present incarnation?" American Speech, 59:340–50, 1984.
  • Thomason, Sarah G. "Past tongues remembered?" The Skeptical Inquirer, 11:367–75, Summer 1987.
  • Thomason, Sarah G. "Xenoglossy" in Gordon Stein (ed.) The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal. Buffalo: Prometheus Books. (1996) PDF

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