Xenoglossy (/ˌziːnəˈɡlɒsi, ˌzɛ-, -noʊ-/), also written xenoglossia (/ˌziːnəˈɡlɒsiə, ˌzɛ-, -noʊ-/), sometimes also known as xenolalia, is the putative paranormal phenomenon in which a person is able to speak or write a language he or she could not have acquired by natural means. The words derive from Greek ξένος (xenos), “foreigner” and γλῶσσα (glōssa), “tongue” or “language”. The term xenoglossy was ostensibly coined by French parapsychologist Charles Richet in 1905. Stories of xenoglossy are found in the Bible, and contemporary claims of xenoglossy have been made by parapsychologists and reincarnation researchers such as Ian Stevenson. There is no scientific evidence that xenoglossy is an actual phenomenon.
Stories of the miraculous abilities of certain individuals to read, write, speak, or understand a foreign language that appear in the Bible and other Christian religious literature went on to inspire similar accounts and stories during the Middle Ages. Claims of mediums speaking foreign languages were made by Spiritualists in the 19th century, as well as by Pentecostals in the 20th century, but these did not hold up to scientific scrutiny. More recent claims of xenoglossy have come from reincarnation researchers who have alleged that individuals were able to recall a language spoken in a past life. Some reports of xenoglossy have surfaced in the popular press, such as Czech speedway rider Matěj Kůs who in September 2007 supposedly awoke after a crash and was able to converse in perfect English; however press reports of his fluency in English were based entirely on anecdotal stories told by his Czech teammates.
Parapsychologist and psychiatrist at the University of Virginia Ian Stevenson claimed there were a handful of cases that suggested evidence of xenoglossy. These included two where a subject under hypnosis could allegedly 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, reanalyzed these cases, concluding that “the linguistic evidence is too weak to provide support for the claims of xenoglossy”.
When Stevenson investigated an American housewife known as “T. E” who exhibited the male personality of a Swedish farmer named “Jensen Jacoby” while under hypnosis, he 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; writing that though “Jensen” had a total vocabulary of about 100 words, “this is not very impressive when compared with the thousands of words known by any native speaker of any natural language, even taking into account the limited contexts in which Jensen spoke Swedish.” Thomason found that “Jensen” gave no complex sentences, mostly giving one or two word answers, and concluded, “[Stevenson’s] demonstration that there was no fraud in the case is convincing, but his claim that Jensen had the capacity to speak Swedish is not.” Linguist William Samarin drew the same conclusion as Thomason.
Stevenson also investigated another American woman named Dolores Jay who exhibited the personality of a German teenage girl named “Gretchen” while hypnotized. He claimed that the subject was able to converse in German. Thomason’s reanalysis, while acknowledging that the evidence against fraud was convincing, concluded that “Gretchen” could not converse fluently in German and that her speech was largely the repetition of German questions with different intonation, or utterances of one or two words. Thomason found that the German vocabulary of “Gretchen” was “minute” and her pronunciation was “spotty”, adding that Dolores Jay had some previous exposure to German in TV programs and had looked at a German book.
William J. Samarin, a linguist from the University of Toronto has written that Stevenson had chosen to correspond with linguists in a selective and unprofessional manner. He noted that Stevenson corresponded with one linguist for a period of six years “without raising any discussion about the kinds of thing that linguists would need to know.” He also wrote that most of Stevenson’s collaborators were “fellow believers” in the paranormal, starting with a preconceived notion.
Prof. William Frawley in a review for Stevenson’s Unlearned Language: New Studies in Xenoglossy (1984) wrote that he was too uncritically accepting of a paranormal interpretation of the cases. In one case a female subject could only answer yes or no questions in German which Frawley found unimpressive. In another, the female subject could speak Bengali with a poor pronunciation. Frawley noted that she was raised on the language of Marathi (related to Bengali), had studied Sanskrit from which both Marathi and Bengali derive and was living in a town with thousands of Bengalis. He concluded “Stevenson does not consider enough linguistic evidence in these cases to warrant his metaphysics.”
The psychologist David Lester also evaluated Stevenson’s cases and wrote the subjects made grammatical mistakes, mispronounced words and did not show a wide vocabulary of words in foreign language, thus they cannot be considered evidence for xenoglossy.
In the early 20th century Alfred Hulme, a self-proclaimed Egyptologist, investigated a young girl named Ivy Carter Beaumont also known as “Rosemary” from Blackpool, England who claimed to be under the influence of the personality of a Babylonian princess. Hulme was convinced she spoke in an ancient Egyptian dialect. However, according to linguist Karen Stollznow “Several scholars examined the data independently and concluded that Hulme’s analyses were grossly inaccurate. Hulme had confused Middle Egyptian and Late Egyptian […] they also found evidence that he had falsified many results.”