Glossolalia and the Problem of Language by Nicholas Harkness

November 18, 2022
Glossolalia book cover

The Department of Anthropology wishes to recognize and congratulate Dr. Nicholas Harkness whose recent book Glossolalia and the Problem of Language received an honorable mention from the Society for East Asian Anthropology for the Hsu Prize.

This year we have two Honorable Mentions for the Francis Hsu Book Prize, demonstrating the excellent quality and breadth of anthropology of East Asia: Glossolalia and the Problem of Language, by Nicholas Harkness, Professor of anthropology at Harvard University, published by the University of Chicago Press; and Stitching the 24-Hour City: Life, Labor, and the Problem of Speed in Seoul, written by Seo Young Park, Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Scripps College, published by Cornell University Press.


In Glossolalia and the Problem of Language, Harkness provides an innovative, richly ethnographic, and theoretically sophisticated account of the Christian religious practice of glossolalia (speaking in tongues) in South Korea. Harkness argues persuasively that close examination of glossolalia in context teaches us about the limits of language, as this perplexing linguistic practice is language while remaining non-denotational. To make this argument the analysis is embedded in a detailed, multi-sited, and multi-media ethnography, including ethnography of church communities, individual and collective practices and pressures, linguistic analysis from the pulpit, as well as a rich analysis of Billy Graham’s 1973 speech and Billy Jang Hwan Kim’s live interpretation. By examining the linguistic, spiritual, and social aspects of glossolalia in Korea Harkness provides rich insight into Christian communities in Korea, in dialogue with linguistic anthropology and historical understandings of the linguistic practice. In all, Harkness provides us with an insightful ethnography of a puzzling linguistic practice which is growing globally, demonstrating what we learn about Korean Christianity in situ, glossolalia as a practice, and the limits of language itself.


Read the full SEAA announcement here.


About The Author

Nicholas Harkness is the Modern Korean Economy and Society Professor of Anthropology at Harvard University. He specializes in the ethnographic study of communication and sociocultural semiosis (sign-processes). His research in South Korea has resulted in publications on various topics, including voice, language, music, religion, ritual, kinship, liquor, and the city of Seoul. His first book, Songs of Seoul: An Ethnography of Voice and Voicing in Christian South Korea (University of California Press, 2014), was awarded the Edward Sapir Book Prize by the Society for Linguistic Anthropology (Co-Winner, 2014, American Anthropological Association). Harkness's second book is titled Glossolalia and the Problem of Language (University of Chicago Press, 2021). A number of his papers have been devoted to developing an anthropological approach to “qualia.” These papers incorporate the innovations of contemporary semiotics into the ethnographic theorization of sensuous social life.