Glossopoeia: The Gift of (Invented) Tongues


“Atan lantanë tana atani ëuvar; ar atani ëar tana haryar olassë.”

– 2 Nephi 2:27, author’s translation in Quenya


A calligraphic tengwar version of The Ataramma, the Lord’s Prayer in Quenya, by Danny Andries. Tengwar is one writing system that Tolkien invented for his invented languages. Source:


Warning: this post is weird. It descends into depths of Tolkien nerdery previously unheard-of at BCC. Ye be warned.

Today is Tolkien Reading Day. Every March 25th the Tolkien Society chooses a theme and encourages readers to read their favorite passages from the professor’s work that relate to that theme, and read them on this day. This year’s theme is Tolkien and the Mysterious. That’s a topic with a lot of material, but one of the elements that contributes most to the sense of mystery—the sense that there is more to the story behind the story, is the presence of invented languages in Tolkien’s stories. Not just nonsense words with a “translation” in English, but full languages with internal rules of grammar, etymologies, and alphabets. This post will be an exploration of the idea of invented languages as it relates to the idea of the gift of tongues.

Glossapoeia: “A secret vice”

Tolkien was, in his professional, academic, public life, a little embarrassed by his lifelong habit of inventing fictional languages, and he kept it private for a long time. He finally spoke about it at length publicly in talk he gave when he was in his late 30s, calling it a “secret vice.”[1] In his talk, he tells the story of sitting in a wet, filthy, tent during his service in WWI, sitting through a lecture “on map-reading or camp-hygiene, or the art of sticking a fellow through…without bothering who God sent the bill to” when a man next to him, apparently deep in thought, suddenly remarked to himself on an apparent breakthrough in a language that the man was working to create. He asked the man to tell him more, but never learned any more about it from him. In his lecture, he compares the man’s joy at his breakthrough to that of an artist or a poet when he solves a riddle that was holding back his art, and he recounts that he had surmised that the man “cheered and comforted himself in the tedium and squalors” of war with the pure artistic joy of creating a language.

He then confesses that he himself had done the same thing since he was a child, and he gives a short overview of the development of his invented languages as they grew from the simple “Nevbosh” of his childhood, to the complicated and developed “Elvish” languages that would develop into the mythology that eventually became The Lord of the Rings. He then gives a few examples of poetry he had written in these languages, versions of which would find their way into The Lord of the Rings a couple decades later. What this talk demonstrates was that for Tolkien, inventing languages became something more than having a secret code among friends; it was about the aesthetic beauty of language and the fitness of each particular kind of beauty to the things that language signifies. It was about the musicality of language. The sounds, combinations of sounds, and rhythms. It was about finding the sounds that fit with the thing, about discovering the “true names” for things—the sounds that most fit their essence. It was about joy in creation. Tolkien even invented a word for this kind of language invention: glossapoeia, from Greek roots meaning “tongue” and “creation.”

This will sound weird, but as I’ve read more about Tolkien’s glossopoeic creations, I’ve begun to wonder if we can’t see the inclination to invent languages as a sort of creative version of the gift of tongues.

Glossolalia as spontaneous language creation

Others have broken the biblical gift of tongues into two distinct categories: glossolalia, speaking by the inspiration of the holy ghost in an unknown tongue (sometimes identified as the language angels) as a sign of having received the holy ghost, and xenoglossia, speaking by the inspiration of the holy ghost in a foreign language unknown to the speaker in order to be able to communicate the gospel message. We don’t practice glossolalia in the church today, and we’re accustomed to think of the gift of tongues solely as xenoglossia—either as miraculous spontaneous speaking in a foreign tongue, or more commonly, as a missionary’s divinely assisted ability to pick up a foreign language a little quicker—and not as glossolalia.

There are historical reasons for that: glossolalia was a common practice in the church alongside xenoglossia for almost a century. Before the restoration, Alexander Campbell’s Disciples of Christ, also called Campbellites, practiced glossolalia. And historians have identified the conversions of Parley Pratt and Sidney Rigdon from the Campbellites in late 1830, as the beginning of glossolalia in the newly organized Church of Christ, but there is some evidence that members at the very first church conference, in June 1830, experienced glossolalia.[2] Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball were frequent prominent practitioners of this gift,[3] but they were not unique. It was exceedingly common for members to speak in tongues. Joseph Smith reportedly declared the unknown tongue that they spoke to be the pure language spoken by Adam in the garden of Eden (this was a Mormon twist on the idea of glossolalia being the language of heaven).[4] The Book of Mormon references in 2 Nephi 31:13 and 32:2 to speaking with “the tongue of angels” are probably references to glossolalia, as is the reference in Mormon 9:24 to “speak[ing] with new tongues.” At any rate these references were likely understood by the early saints as references to glossolalia. The church continued to practice glossolalia and xenoglossia through the 19th century.[5]

But in the first decade of the 20th century, beginning just before the Azusa street revival would revive the gift of tongues and spark the Pentecostal movement, church leaders in Utah cautioned that glossolalia was easily imitated by the devil and therefore unreliable as a sign, and that xenoglossia—the ability to speak in a foreign language to preach the gospel—was the truer, more reliable version of the gift of tongues.[6] By a couple of decades later, glossolalia had basically died out in the church.

But church leaders did not condemn glossolalia or those latter-day saints that practiced it before it died out. Those saints most often did not understand what they spoke, but followed an intuition that they believed to be the Holy Ghost, which inspired them to speak with sounds, combinations of sounds, and rhythms, and patterns, that combined into something that resembled a language—which they took to be the language of heaven, or the language of Adam. It was not the content that mattered most—indeed the content was usually unknown—it was the sounds, the patterns, and the rhythm that were a means of creating something beautiful in praise of God as a sign of God’s restored covenant with his church.

Of course, latter-day saints are not the only Christians that believe in the gift of tongues, and some other Christians still practice glossolalia to this day. (See this fun blog post for a first hand description of contemporary glossolalia.) And, arguably, not all speaking in unknown tongues is even religious. Jonsi, of Sigur Ros, sometimes sings in a glossolalia-like invented language the band calls Hopelandic. Scat singing in jazz might sometimes be compared to be a form of glossolalia. Jonsi, scat singers, and religious glossolalists are all following intuition, following music and rhythm, combining words and sounds into patterns to create something to match with sounds the music, or the prayer of praise they’re creating. It is a form of artistic creation. The difference is whether the intuition they’re following is the Holy Spirit or their own creative intuition.

And that raises another question: to what extent are creative intuition and the Holy Spirit mutually exclusive or compatible? On one extreme, you might think of glossolalia as a form of “possession” by the Holy Spirit: the spirit is taking control and the person is

only speaking what the spirit inspires. But I think the better way to think of it is as a creative partnership between the speaker and the spirit—a combination of creative agency and divine inspiration, the way most revelation works. In fact, religious glossolalia sometimes finds expression in song, blurring the lines between the religious version and the more explicitly creative musical versions. Elizabeth Ann Whitney, for example, who joined the church in Kirtland in 1837, was known for singing “in the pure language”—a gift that she exercised in church meetings throughout most of the 19th century.[7]

Language and Creation in Worship.

Language has a complicated relationship with worship. When a religion begins to spread into new places with people that speak different tongues, there’s a tension between making the faith accessible to the new foreign language-speaking converts through translation, and preserving the pure language of faith. The differing approaches of Islam’s relationship with Arabic and the Catholic Church’s relationship with Latin over the centuries illustrate this tension. And while our church has taken a comparatively liberal attitude toward foreign language vernacular scripture and liturgy first recorded in English, we haven’t escaped this tension either: we see it in the relationship we have with the archaic 17th century language of the King James bible, and with the archaic 19th century language of the Book of Mormon, perhaps to a lesser extent. Worship is a means of accessing that which is eternal and unchanging, but language is dynamic, ephemeral, and always changing. Even within the same language, as centuries pass, old language eventually becomes a foreign language—just try reading or listening to Old English as a speaker of Modern English.

The Book of Mormon speaks of this with the contrast between the Nephites, who kept written records and therefore were able to preserve the knowledge of the language of their fathers, and the people of Mulek, whose language had become unintelligible to the Nephites, and whose religion had been lost because of a lack of sacred texts (Omni 1:17). You can even see shades of it with the Jaredites, whose founding as a people came from turning to God in their anxiety over the prospect of losing their language (Ether 1:34-36).

In our weekly and daily practice in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints we’re concerned about language. We are anxious about having the right words and about getting the words right. We re-do ordinances if the words aren’t right. We speak of the archaic language of our received scriptural translations as “the language of prayer.” In doing so, sometimes we ungrammatically and anachronistically speak of using the archaic familiar English pronouns in prayer as an expression of greater reverence for God, rather than as an expression of intimacy as those pronouns actually were used when they were a part of everyday English; but while we may get those linguistic details wrong, we’re tapping into the principle that by using language that is different in our worship, we are setting apart our worship as something different from the mundane, something holy.

Using old language in worship can have several effects: old language can connect us to a sacred past, but beyond that, language that is unfamiliar (either because it is archaic, or because it is foreign) can set us apart from the everyday, create sacred space, break us out of rote patterns, and open our eyes to see our faith and our texts in new ways. Most missionaries who learned a foreign language, for example, can describe the experience of gaining new insights to certain scriptures from reading them in a different language. There can be drawbacks: take the language of worship too far into the unfamiliar and you lose intelligibility. Do that for too long and it all becomes hocus pocus. But for short bursts, like when Eliza Ann Whitney sang in the spirit in an unintelligible tongue, it can make worship fresh and new.

Tolkien believed that all creative endeavors were potentially acts of worship because by exercising the creative potential that we, as humans, inherently carry within ourselves, we are acting in imitation of God, our father and our creator. He expressed this idea most famously in his poem, “Mythopoeia,” and in his essay “On Fairy-Stories.”[8] We create, according to him, because we are made in the express likeness and image of the creator. It is in our nature. In that sense, all his creative writing—”subcreation” he called it—is an act of worship, including creating his languages. In fact, his languages are not just the adornment of his subcreation, but the heart of it—he claimed that he first set about inventing his language, and only later began to invent his stories, because he realized that a language could never exist without a culture and a mythology, so an invented language must have a fictional, subcreated culture and mythology.[9] So if the professor’s subcreation was an act of worship, then his subcreation of languages was at the heart of that act of worship.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Tolkien put his invented languages to use not just in his legendarium, but also in explicitly Christian compositions in his invented languages. In the 1950s, for example, he composed in Quenya, his invented “high-elven” tongue, versions of the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary, and unfinished fragments of other traditional Catholic texts that held great personal meaning to him. [10]

Glossopoeia as a Spiritual Gift

Glossolalia may be both a gift of the spirit and a form of spontaneous language creation, as I argued above. But if spontaneously combining sounds into a pattern that resembles language can be a means of artistic creation and even a gift of the spirit, can a long-term effort to construct an invented language also be a gift of the spirit? A person can have a God-given talent—even a spiritual gift—for writing beautiful music, as well as for spontaneously improvising beautiful music, both of which can be an act of praise and worship, as anyone knows who has listened to the Messiah or to A Love Supreme. Maybe in a similar way, the ability to labor to write in a new created language can also itself be a spiritual gift akin to glossolalia, as writing music is akin to spontaneously improvising it.

Similar to how using old language or unfamiliar language in worship can create a sacred space and make the experience new, perhaps translating or composing religious texts and devotions in a new language of the author’s own creation can itself be an act of creative worship like setting scripture to music or depicting scenes of scripture in paint or in sculpture. Perhaps language–not just a language, but the concept of language itself with all of its potential for rhythms, music, patterns, and overlapping meanings–can be another artistic medium that can be worked like clay, through which God can be praised, and through which maybe God can even speak. Perhaps the gift of tongues is a big enough gift to include the gift of glossapoeia.

[1] A version of his talk, with the title “A Secret Vice” was published in 1983 in a collection of essays edited by the professor’s son, Christopher. See Christopher Tolkien, ed., Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics and other Essays (Allen & Unwin 1983). A more recent version, expanded with additional notes that have been found, was published in 2016. See Dimitra Fimi & Andrew Higgins, eds., A Secret Vice: Tolkien on Invented Languages (HarperCollins 2016).

[2] See Draft 1 of the Manuscript History of the Church, Joseph Smith Papers.

[3] See Manuscript History of Brigham Young.

[4] See id.

[5] See Lee Copeland, “Speaking in Tongues in the Restoration Churches,” 24:1 Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 13-33 (Spring 1991).

[6] See, e.g., Joseph F. Smith, Conference Report 41 (April 1900), see also Millennial Star (Nov. 15, 1906).

[7] See 7 Women’s Exponent 83 (Nov. 1, 1878); 9 Women’s Exponent 54 (Sept. 1, 1880).

[8] Both the poem and the essay have been published a several times in a several different places. But editions of Tree and Leaf published after 1988 have both.

[9] See Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 165 (ed. Humphrey Carpenter, 1981).

[10] These texts were published in 2002, long after the professor’s death, in the linguistic journal Vinyar Tengwar. See Patrick Wynne, Arden R. Smith, and Carl F. Hostetter, ‘“Words of Joy”: Five Catholic Prayers in Quenya, Part One.’, 43 Vinyar Tengwar 5-38 (Jan. 2002);  Patrick Wynne, Arden R. Smith, and Carl F. Hostetter, ‘“Words of Joy”: Five Catholic Prayers in Quenya, Part Two.’, 44 Vinyar Tengwar 21-30 (June 2002).


  1. Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul,
    ash nazg thrakatulûk, agh burzum-ishi krimpatul.

  2. it's a series of tubes says:

    Talon, keep that filthy gutter speak out of this comments section.

    Also, this post just made my Monday. My inner nerd rejoices.

  3. A friend who is a former Pentecostal talked about his experience in hearing and then speaking angeltongue. In his experience, it consisted of repeated intermixed phrases that made no sense to me, but have a kind of musical quality. I think there is some relationship between this and Joseph Smith’s translation efforts. Interesting post!

  4. I had a friend who attended a Pentacostal church, and I occasionally accompanied him. The services were lively, often theatrical, but for the most part Christ focused. During one of the services I attended, one of the pastors suddenly started speaking loudly in what sounded like fake Hebrew. Another pastor then “translated” what he said. I realized soon afterwards that it was supposed to be a display of tougues. I use quotes with “translate”, since the whole thing felt rehearsed, and I felt uneasy while it was occurring. Something about it just didn’t feel right. Perhaps I was missing something, but at the time I felt like it was a bit of a desecration of true spiritual gifts. In hindsight, I recognize that it might have been genuine, but I am skeptical of showy, manufactured spirituality in general, especially within our own church, since we should know better. Stuff like Trek and EFY have replaced speaking in tongues, but the high drama element is still there. I find that the true tongue of angels, i.e.spesking in tongues, comes when you are guided by the spirit in speaking comfort to those in need, or in sharing Christ’s teaching to those ready to hear. Nothing dramatic, just a pure simple showing of love though words.

  5. I’ve never thought of the connection between speaking in tongues and the babbling of toddlers who are first learning to speak. They just sort of babble in a cadence and rhythm that kind of matches the language they hear. They don’t know the words for their ideas, but they can at least express some of the emotion associated with it through their babbles. It’s sort of beautiful to think of glossopoeia the same way. There are spiritual truths that we can sort of know, but they’re beyond what we can express within the limitations of our language, so why not do what toddlers do and fill in syllables as we express the emotion through the language, cadence, and rhythm of our speech?

  6. Never before has anyone dared utter words of that tongue here, at BCC, Talon.

  7. WVS said “I think there is some relationship between this and Joseph Smith’s translation efforts.”

    Yeah, Bill, I think so too, though I can’t quite articulate what that connection might be yet.

  8. Carole, the comparison with toddlers is really interesting.

  9. Every few years I teach a class on constructed languages at BYU. The history of constructed languages is quite interesting and includes the Lingua Ignota of Hildegard of Bingen. She also designed an alphabet for it and apparently used the language for personal devotional purposes. All we have now of the LI is a vocabulary list and a short text fragment (part of a hymn). She doesn’t seem to have been very systematic in its construction, and she cribs most of the grammar from Latin.

    There is a subgenre of constructed languages called “heartlangs” which the inventor devises for devotional or ritual purposes or to faciliate the expression of thoughts, feelings, or desires that otherwise couldn’t be expressed (easily) in his or her native language. I know several people who have created their own heartlangs, one of them a young transgender man who uses his language as a refuge from a hostile home environment. He derives a great deal of comfort from being able to express things that he feels are not expressible in English or which he doesn’t want others to know or find out.

    In spite of the fact that I’ve been pretty active in the online constructed languages community for quite a while now, it’s news to me that Tolkien translated traditional devotional texts into Quenya. I can’t say that I’m surprised. Like Hildegard and my young friend, Tolkien found a great deal of comfort and a sort of refuge in his invented languages and worlds. His example is (part of) what inspired me to become a linguist.

  10. I have a negative interest in glossolalia and I flip the pages when Tolkien goes elvish, but somehow you caught my attention with this post and I keep thinking about it. Good on you, JKC.

    I think it’s the idea of Spirit as a creative force that’s captivating. There’s a good sense there, and the applications keep spinning out.

  11. That’s a fascinating comment, Dirk, thank you for sharing it. I kind of wish I had known to read up on Hildegard’s conlang before I wrote this post. But then again, maybe it would have made it even more unwieldy. The example of the young trans man is heartbreaking.

    I didn’t really get into the specifics of the deviotional texts in Quenya in the post, but Tolkien’s Quenya Lord’s prayer, the Ataremma, is really fascinating to see how he renders things and what that reveals about his theology (or the theology of his fiction). In the first five versions, he translates “who are in heaven” more or less literally with variations on Quenya words for sky. But in the last version, he translates it as “I ea han ea,” or, “who is beyond being,” or “who is beyond the world (or universe).”

    It’s a fascinating change, but the question I still have is whether he was going for something that more closely matched his own Catholic theology of God as a being that exists outside of space and time, or whether he was only trying to make it fit into the mythology of the Silmarillion, which describes Eru (the creator) as existing beyond the world (which is best read as Universe). Or indeed, whether Eru only reflects his own theology in the first place. I mean, he does, in part, but I think its really interesting to think about whether his motivation was to make the Ataremma fit his own theology, or whether it was to make it fit into the cultural context of Quenya, which also happened to match his own theology on this point.

  12. There are few who can JKC, lol!

  13. I always thought Steve Evans ran the BCC twitter account. But a few days ago that account said it was translating 2 Nephi 2:25 into a Tolkien language. And here we are with a post where JKC says he did the translation himself. Is it JKC running the twitter account then?

  14. We are many, adano.

  15. Man I love a lot of things about this post!

  16. But to be clear, adano, BCC tweeted about translating D&C 13, and I responded to that tweet with my translation of 2 Nephi 2:27.

  17. The plot thickens then.

  18. It occurs to me now, though it didn’t when I drafted this post, that LOTR has at least one instance of glossolalia when Frodo is inspired in Shelob’s lair to call upon Elbereth in Quenya, speaking words that he did not understand. That’s arguably xenoglossia rather that glossolalia, because it’s just a foreign tongue to Frodo, not an unknown tongue, but because it comes out of nowhere by inspiration, and for the purpose of prayer, not evangelization, I think it’s closer to glossolalia.

  19. Hildegard of Bingen is regarded by some glossopoeists as the unofficial saint of the art of language invention.

%d bloggers like this: