Glossolalia

It sounds like a medical condition—so much so that I’m going to try it on some friends next week in Amsterdam and see how it flies.

“Sorry, I’m off the red wine at the moment—diagnosed with a stubborn case of glossolalia, I’m afraid.” Perplexed looks, perhaps the odd sympathetic murmur.

“No, no, it’s a mild liver infection, not too serious.”

But in fact, this is a word concocted by some particularly cunning linguists (as opposed to master debaters, to quote the legendary Austin Powers).

I’d forgotten how good the original clip is—it meets my exacting standards for sophomoric humor.

So… glossolalia it is, my friends—known to mere mortals as speaking in tongues—an amazing gift first revealed in the gospel of St. Mark, Chapter 16, Verse 17.

And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues;

Jesus performed the miracle of glossolalia on his disciples, who then held forth to their audiences in tongues—contrary to Babel, where a cacophony of different languages was understood by none, in the Jerusalem square where the apostles preached the gospel, everyone heard it in their own ‘tongue.’

In this context, the word ‘tongue’ is itself interesting. In several European er… languages, it’s synonymous with ‘language’, as in the French ‘langue’, Italian or Portuguese ‘lingua’, or the Spanish ‘lengua’. In English, phrases like ‘mother tongue’ do not refer to a protuberant piece of maternal anatomy but presumably to an older word for language—today, ‘What is your favorite tongue?’ might well be taken the wrong way.

The gift is clear—you hold forth in Hebrew and are understood in Somali. One assumes that those who possess such a gift can also reverse the process—when addressed in one of the sixty-six indigenous languages of Burkina Faso, the plain English equivalent is readily understood.

There is a caveat to this narrative—the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 14, suggests that glossolalia may be a different beast altogether.

For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit

If the apostle epistle is to be believed, then it is almost as if there is some kind of telepathy at play, rather than simultaneous translation.

Whatever the mechanism, the concept and consequence are the holy grail of communication. In 1887, a Polish doctor attempted to resolve the problem of universal comms with a second, or auxiliary, language—Esperanto; but the number of speakers today is only estimated to be between sixty-three thousand and two million—after one hundred thirty years? I don’t think so.

Enter AI, which is rapidly slicing through all sorts of hitherto intractable problems. The combination of computational speed and artificial intelligence makes translation on the fly a reality today.

In 2003, a Swede and a Dane invented Skype. Unlike Esperanto, Skype needs no introduction—usage numbers in 2010 were around six hundred and sixty million, about ten percent of the world population, but after Microsoft bought it in May 2011 for 8.5 billion dollars, things went downhill.

Partly, that speaks to Microsoft’s penchant to screw things up—I’ve used their products for decades, but no one would ever call them sexy. Cool stuff like Zoom, Facetime, WhatsApp, and Hangouts stuck the knife in deep over the last decade, but Microsoft’s gift for complicating stuff hasn’t helped matters.

They have, however, made giant strides when it comes to tongues. Microsoft has used its AI capacity to add simultaneous translation to Skype.

But the process hasn’t all been a bed of roses. To validate the quality of the translation—a point well made by Austin Powers when discussing his rod—mickeysoft involved humans in its translation analysis, with little consideration for the private nature of conversations.

An article in Motherboard recently discussed the software giant’s use of private contractors to verify translation accuracy, with what appeared to be minimal security when it came to data protection—contractors were privy to intimate conversations, and this will undoubtedly anger many users.

It may be cold comfort, but the Snowden leaks revealed in 2013 that Microsoft already shares data from its Skype supernodes with the NSA and other intelligence agencies—no translation required.

These little hiccups aside, once the door opens, ideas will come flooding in. Enter Snapdragon 865, the new 5G chip from Qualcomm, which was recently showcased in Maui. the AI product boss, Ziad Asghar, spoke into a cellphone in English, and his words were simultaneously broadcast in Chinese.

The new decade will produce phones that allow you to speak in tongues, opening up a whole new world of communication. There are downsides—the main one being that this will reduce the incentive to learn new languages.

When you speak another language or two, it helps you learn more about your own. It also opens your mind to new peoples and cultures—breaking down barriers destroys silos and promotes peace and harmony.

But change is inexorably coming, and as Churchill said, ‘We must take change by the hand or rest assuredly, change will take us by the throat.’

Or, as my Chinese friends would say, we’re all grossorarians now.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: