The sudden ability to speak in an unlearned language or a language that is usually unrecognizable to the speaker. It is not to be confused with glossolalia or ‘speaking in tongues’. Xenoglossy is a phenomenon that is associated with altered states of consciousness, such as trance and sleep and mediumship. Often the language spoken can’t be identified by the speaker and this has led some people to believe that the person may be speaking in an angelic or otherworldly language.

The term ‘xenoglossy’ was coined in the late nineteenth century by French physiologist Charles Richet, from the Greek words xeno (strange) and glossia (tongue). Theories on the origins of xenoglossy range from the spiritualist viewpoint of spirit communication to the psychologist’s view that it comes from a person’s subconscious memory, which stores words from foreign languages that are heard in childhood and subsequently forgotten. Sceptics argue that the most likely explanation is fraud by the medium during séance communications.

There are said to be two types of xenoglossy: recitative xenoglossy, when a person speaks in a language but doesn’t understand its meaning, and responsive xenoglossy, when a person is able to carry on a conversation in an unlearned language. The former is believed to be more common than the later. One of the most famous cases of recitative xenoglossy is that of a Hindu girl called Swarnlata Mishra. Between the ages of four and six she was able to perform and sing Bengali songs and dances without ever having been exposed to Bengali language or culture. She said that she had been a Bengali woman in a previous life. An early example of responsive xenoglossy was reported in 1862 by a mesmerist called Prince Galitzin, who allegedly mesmerized an uneducated German woman who could not speak French. While in a trance the woman spoke and conversed in fluent French.

From 1955 to 1956 a 37-year-old Philadelphia housewife was hypnotized by her husband in a series of sessions. The
personality that the woman subsequently revealed was a male peasant farmer called ‘Jensen’, who spoke in seventeenth-century colloquial Swedish. The woman claimed to have no knowledge of this language, and under hypnosis no subconscious knowledge was discovered.

Another responsive xenoglossy case is that of ‘Gretchen’, a German-speaking girl, who manifested in 1970 during the hypnotic regression of Doloros Jay from Virginia. ‘Gretchen’ understood simple English but communicated in imperfect German. She said she was the daughter of a German major, and had lived in the later half of the nineteenth century, dying at the age of 16.

Xenography is the term used to refer to the writing of unlearned languages. As with xenoglossy, some believe it to be a paranormal phenomenon while others believe it to be an ability that was learned earlier in life and forgotten.

The significance of cases involving xenoglossy is that, if they are authentic, the super ESP hypothesis would be hard pressed to explain them. Is it really possible for a medium to acquire by the sole means of ESP the vocabulary and pronunciation of a foreign language? Parapsychologists simply don’t know, but if ESP can stretch to this extent then the informational limits of ESP must be virtually boundless.


The Element Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Hauntings: The Complete A–Z for the Entire Magical World: The Ultimate A-Z of Spirits, Mysteries and the Paranormal by Theresa Cheung

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