The ability to speak in a language which one has never studied. From Greek words xenos ‘foreign, strange’ and glossos ‘language, tongue.’ The similar talent to write in a foreign tongue is called xenography. Xenoglossy is sometimes termed xenoglossia or xenoglossis.
It is important to distinguish, where possible, xenoglossy from glossolalia or ‘speaking in tongues.’ The term xenoglossy is only supposed to apply in cases where the person is verified to be speaking in an actual language (with varying degrees of fluency, depending on the case and the person doing the verifying). Glossolalia involves persons speaking meaningless pseudo-language, sometimes claimed to be the language of angels, of prehistoric humans, the language of the Martian people (I am neither kidding nor making this up, the cases of Martian language channelling are as weird and entertaining as anything on the books) or some other unverifiable sort of tongue.
Not all cases of xenoglossy are so clear-cut, however. There are several cases I have read wherein the person was said to be speaking 'an Oriental-sounding language' or 'something with an Indian sound to it' and it seems likely that these were cases of glossolalia.
The term xenoglossy was coined by French physiologist Charles Richet in the early Twentieth Century, who apparently used the term to cover both speaking and writing in a foreign language.
In early times, xenoglossy and glossolalia were both sometimes seen as evidence of divine inspiration or demonic possession. This largely depended on how well-liked the person exhibiting the odd talent was. There are many recorded instances of persons speaking, singing, babbling and ranting in languages that they supposedly had no knowledge of.
Responsive xenoglossy is when a person can carry on a conversation rather than just repeating phrases. It is a bit harder to fake or explain away.
A FEW INTERESTING CASES OF XENOGLOSSY
One of the first well-documented instances of this weird phenomenon was in 1862. A hypnotist named Prince Galtizin hypnotized a German woman who apparently knew no French at all. In her trance, she spoke fluent French and told of life as a woman in France in the previous century.
According to the testimony of a Nineteenth Century Judge Edmonds, a medium (who was his daughter, Laura) could channel spirits who would then converse through her for long periods of time in various languages including Greek, Polish, Spanish and at least two Native American languages. Interestingly, Miss Edmonds claimed not to have any clue what she was saying during the trances. Visitors claimed that the spirits would converse with amazing fluency.
A case which sparked many imaginations was that of the Twentieth Century mystic Thérèse Neuman. Claiming angelic or divine inspiration, she spoke about the life of Jesus in fluent Aramaic, a language she had never studied.
A very famous case of xenoglossy is that of Swarnlata Mishra, a young woman who had supposedly never been exposed to the Bengali language, but could sing songs in the language and perform native Bengali dances. She believed that she was the re-incarnation of a Bengali woman who had learned these things in a previous life.
A particularly odd case involved a child of Polish parents. Her parents only spoke the Polish language around her. She began speaking in a tongue that neither could understand nor could they even identify it. The girl claimed to have no knowledge of what she was doing or saying. When someone finally figured it out, it was determined that she was speaking Gaelic, a language that the child seemed to have no exposure to at all.
In 1970, a woman named Delores Jay was hypnotized. She claimed to be a reincarnation of a German woman from the Nineteenth Century. While hypnotized, Ms. Jay spoke German very well, despite never having studied the language.
VARIOUS EXPLANATIONS FOR XENOGLOSSY
This is an unusual and shocking talent
that sometimes is used as evidence for past-life regression
or spirit medium
cy. Many skeptics believe that language can be absorbed through repeated exposure below the level of conscious
recognition. These subtle skills may then be manifested in extraordinary circumstances, such as hypnotic trance
s. The name for this sort of phenomenon is cryptomnesia
. Additionally, some cases of xenoglossy are likely hoax
es, fakes or tricks.
Williams, Richard “Bizarre Phenomena” (Reader’s Digest, Pleasantville, NY, 1992).
The Mystica online: http://www.themystica.com/mystica/articles/x/xenoglossy.html
Fodor, Nandor, "an Encyclopaedia of Psychic Science" (Citadel Press, Secaucus, NJ, 1966).
Language Log: Stupid Dead People Language Tricks - http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/000410.html