On Alliteration and Speaking In Tongues

‘The literature on Glossolalia
is relatively scant.
It also reflects
The absence of
any kind of working definition,
and all too often
richness of invention
substitutes for
careful observation.’

Speaking In Tongues,
A Cross Cultural Study of Glossolalia
Felicitas D. Goodman

One of the ongoing questions that percolates through my mind during this journey into Northern European visionary practices is where in the cultural midden heap the persistent repetitive beat that precipitates the physical and perceptual changes of the shamanic visionary state have been concealed. Then I perused JRR Tolkien’s notes on medieval English verse forms in the Del Rey paperback version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. He writes:

‘…the narrated vision
in the more serious medieval writing
if not an actual dream,
at least a real process of thought
culminating in
some resolution
or turning point in the interior life’

JRR Tolkien
The Green Knight

When I plug that sentence in to the remnants of the bardic traditions, I find myself thinking that Tolkien’s ‘real process’ is an aspect of the shamanic visionary state precipitated by the way in which the story is told. I did find remnants of rituals pointing towards this type of visionary experience in the old Irish practices of:

Imbas forosnai, defined as ‘knowledge that illuminates’;
• tenm laida, defined as ‘song that illuminates’; and
• dichetal do chennaib, defined as ‘a song or chant that illuminates others’

documented in the extant writing of the Medieval Irish monks. Details are difficult to come by, as the official position of the Church was to suppress the practice. Tolkien himself had some inkling of that there was a purposeful intent behind the way the ‘dark’ medieval poems he studied were written as he noted that:

‘Natural language does not always arrange itself
into the simple patterns’

JRR Tolkien
The Green Knight

The ultimate in ‘unnatural’ language is glossolalia. Unfortunately, speaking in tongues is so burdened with religious, specifically Christian, weight and preconceptions that very few people have truly looked at the phenomena. Felicitas Goodman’s extraordinarily insightful stance on the subject arose out of Noam Chomsky’s ideas about a ‘deep’ neuro-physiological structure that underlies our human ability to produce and comprehend the meaningful sounds inherent in our human languages combined with her own background as a musician. Her hypothesis was that glossolalia could be an activation of the neuro-physiological structures that allow us human speech through an altered state of consciousness. She went on to postulate that there are techniques, or rituals, that allow humans to express a structured vocalization that is not bound by language, creed, or culture, and is therefore an expression of human neuro-physiology. Evidence supporting these ideas were found by studying recordings of glossolalia from groups of varied cultural backgrounds and speaking different native languages.

Her description of the practice of ‘driving’ a group into the experience of glossolalia through example and repetitive speech dovetails neatly into Tolkien’s somewhat sardonic observation that:

…this pattern remains indeed so frequent and insistent’
as to impart to the metrical effect of the whole
a certain monotony,
which combined with the emphasis of alliteration can
(at any rate to the modern listener)
become almost soporific.’

JRR Tolkien
The Green Knight

Precipitation of the altered state can be facilitated by various techniques of ‘paradoxical command’ resulting in a cognitive dissonance that propels us out of our normal state of consciousness . Simultaneous slow chanting and fast clapping demand a different type of attention than our linear verbal rational mind can muster, as does an intonation pattern that runs counter to the meaning and rhythm of normal speech. Tolkien describes the ‘dark ‘alliterative medieval verse forms he studied this way:

‘In the old alliterative verse
The line had no repeated or constant
accentual rhythm
which gave it its metrical character;
its units were the half lines,
each of which was independently constructed.
The line was internally linked by alliteration;
But this linking was deliberately used
To the rhetorical and syntactic structures. ‘

JRR Tolkien
The Green Knight

One of the first signs that a person is entering into a visionary state through listening to the sound of a drumming or rattle is a persistent sense that the rhythmic sound is disassociated from its source and traveling freely about the person. This occurs even though the intellectual egoic self is perfectly well aware that there is a drummer or recording and where that source is placed. To purposefully disassociate sound and intonation patterns from the normal patterns expected in rational speech is an indication that the bardic tradition was well acquainted with the visionary state and well learnt in the means of inducing and directing it in others.

I do not think it is an unreasonable leap to conclude that these ’dark’ poets and ancient bards were the keepers of the visionary practices, as neither physical or fictional remnants of the drums and/or rattles inextricably bound up with neo-shamanic visionary journeying are commonly found in relation to Northern European visionary practices. The bardic poetic and musical traditions however are eerily reminiscent of Felicitas Goodman’s descriptions of the utterances found in glossolalia. Her musical training gave her the structure to describe glossolalia as pulses organized into bars, with several bars then composing a phrase, and several phrases composing a complete utterance or verse. Felicitas goes onto say that when the glossolalia pulses are arranged by the energy invested in enunciating them; the patterns of intonation become clear, commenting that:

‘The most striking characteristic
Of this discharge
Is that it has a variable
Frequency and amplitude
Producing one complete wave
From onset to over peak to decay
In anywhere from perhaps two seconds to six seconds or longer
And amplitudes from
Ordinary speech variation in pitch up to an octave an a half.

Speaking In Tongues,
A Cross Cultural Study of Glossolalia
Felicitas D. Goodman

Even though the written word lacks overt indications of how much emotion and effort a person puts into speaking them, Tolkien likewise noticed that:

‘Each part had to contain two syllables
(often whole words like siege)
That were in their place sufficiently stressed
to bear a ‘beat’.
The other syllables should be lighter and quieter.
But their number was not counted,
nor in this medieval form
was their placing strictly ordered.

JRR Tolkien
The Green Knight

That this was intentional on the part of the medieval poet is backed up by Felicitas Goodman’s observations that intonation patterns in glossolalia follow distinct patterns of onset, peaking, a sloping gradient, and precipitous decay. Cross-culturally glossolalia exhibits these qualities:

• Every pulse begins with a consonant
• Every pulse ends with a vowel

Tolkien takes pains to point out that alliteration ‘as applied in the ancestral measure’ has some unique characteristics.:

• the same consonantal sound (not letter)
• must begin the stressed syllables within the line

Cross-culturally glossolalia exhibits these qualities:

• Pulses can be of high, moderate, or low stresses (energy levels).

The force of the stressed syllables within a line of ‘dark’ poetry varies; just as it does in glossolalia. In Tolkien’s words:

‘Increased alliteration
is usually connected with increase
in the weight and content of the line.
In very many verses
the first part of the line has three heavy syllables or beats
not necessarily or indeed usually,
of equal force.

JRR Tolkien
The Green Knight

Cross-culturally glossolalia exhibits these qualities:

• Primary stresses (increased volume and duration) are preceded by a pause
• Primary stresses fall on the first pulse of a bar

In Tolkien’s words:

‘The poet begins his poem with a very regular line,
One of his favourite varieties…
This kind of line falls into two parts…
There is nearly always a breath pause between them
Corresponding to some degree of pause in the sense.

JRR Tolkien
The Green Knight

Cross-culturally glossolalia exhibits these qualities:

• Bars consist of pulses and pauses
• Bars are of equal duration
• Phrases consist of several bars
• Phrases are of equal length

The emphasis is on the syllable or pulse, not necessarily the word or sentence structure. In Tolkien’s words:

‘But the line was wielded into a metrical unit
By alliteration;
One or more (usually two)
Of the chief words in the first part
Were linked
By alliteration
With the first important word
Of the second part.’

JRR Tolkien
The Green Knight

Furthermore, although the onset of glossolalia can be abrupt, with many medieval authors’ beginning their works by being ‘taken’ into a dream; the cessation of the altered state or awakening can be gradual, often segueing into a halfway state where the visionary experience is accessible but the person is capable of coherent verbalization. This halfway state is well known among charismatic Christians and is described by them as ‘spiritual interpretation’. Again, cross-culturally, this ‘platform stage’ of consciousness is marked by:

• Vowel elongation
• Interruption of normal speech patterns
• Interjection of sounds not normally a part of speech
• Marked glottal constrictions not normally a part of speech
• Sudden extremely high rises in pitch, often as much as 1 ½ octaves at once
• Speech segments initiated by sudden increases of volume, breath, and/or glottalization

Which may be why Tolkien noted that alliteration could also be satisfied if the stressed syllable was

• absent any consonantal sound (a vowel or a pause)

These spoken traits belong more properly in the field of elocution than written poetry, and would greatly empower contemporary poetry ‘slams’. A skilled bard would be someone who had learned to control their own glossolalial experience, integrating these attributes of the ‘platform stage’ into their performance and were therefore capable of taking those who listened into their own direct visionary experience of the tales being told. Thus, ‘dark’ poetry with its distinctive contrasting sounds and stresses underlying a compelling storyline could become a tool of illumination for those privileged to experience a performance by a noted bardic poet who could literally draw them into the story. Like many modern folk, the medieval attitude that such a personal visionary experience was expected thoroughly bemused Tolkien. As a rational 20th century scholar, he was put off by what appeared to be a cavalier attitude towards individual authors, writing:

‘…they were apt to read poems
for what they could get out of them
of sentence,
as they said,
of instructions for themselves,
and their times,
and they were shockingly incurious about authors as persons…

JRR Tolkien
The Green Knight

However, from a bardic, shamanic and/or and visionary point of view, stories are apocryphal, mythical , and transpersonal, each telling arises out of a need to address the conflict between present needs and ancient patterns for the then current audience. The voluntary visionary experience is dependent on a ritual structure that allows people to enter into, abandon themselves within, and awaken from the altered state in a culturally sanctioned and comprehensible circumstance. Success is contingent upon the storyteller’s ability to bring the story to life for each individual so each might find their own resolution within their own particular interior constellation of desires, demands, and cultural limitations. As Tolkien himself put it:

‘Tales of the past required their grave authorities
And tales of new things at least an eyewitness:
The author
This was one of the reasons for the popularity of visions:
they allowed marvels to be placed within the real world
linking them with
a person
a place
a time
while providing them with an explanation
in the phantasies of sleep
and a defense against critics in the notorious deception of dreams
So even explicit allegory was usually represented
as a thing seen in sleep.
How far any such narrated vision was supposed
to resemble an actual dream experience was another question.’

JRR Tolkien
The Green Knight

The verses Tolkien studied would indeed be ‘dark’ until and unless a ‘spiritual interpreter’, a skilled, experienced, and knowledgeable bard, was available to speak from and to such a luminal state. If, unlike Tolkien, we should wish to share such transcendent bardic experience ourselves, our success depends on our ability to acknowledge that:

“…an initiatory experience imposes
an awesome responsibility
on its recipient.
In tribal cultures, the whole community supported the novice
until he or she could assimilate the vision’s import.
When there is no tribe,
Or when the individual initiatory vision is not culturally sanctioned,
A person may deny it,
Run from it,
Forget it,
Or not even recognize it as a vision.

Page 71 Speech of the Grail
by Linda Sussman

Even this small window into such practices sheds new light on Gawain’s travails (click here) and Parsifal’s introduction to his lineage by Trevrizent (click here) so I’ll leave you with a last word from Felicitas that applies as much to Parzival’s time as our own:

‘I very much hope
That in addition to presenting some scientific results
Modest as they may be
I will be able to convey
A little of my wonder at
And my reverence for
The miracle that is man,
Which remains awesome
Whether we postulate
A Holy Spirit
Or not.

Speaking In Tongues,
A Cross Cultural Study of Glossolalia
Felicitas D. Goodman

click for more and for context


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