The Parseltongue Predicament

The Parseltongue Predicament

Parseltongue—it’s the language of the serpents and a wizarding phenomenon we are introduced to very early on in the Harry Potter series (Chapter 2 of Sorcerer’s Stone, in fact). Parselmouths, or the individuals who are able to speak Parseltongue, are considered to be very rare among the wizarding population and are normally able to trace their lineage back to Salazar Slytherin himself. The ability is – for the most part – inborn, and wizards who are not born with the gift of serpent-gab are said to be unable to learn the language. We know Harry (in true Harry fashion) defies both of these conditions as he retains no biological or genetic relation to Slytherin, nor was he born able to speak to snakes. Harry’s strange capability is a direct result of the accidental Horcrux that he became the night Salazar Slytherins’ last descendant attempted to kill him.

Those who are fluent in the Parseltongue dialect often face prejudice in the wizarding world it seems. Both Cornelius Fudge and an “unknown member of the Dark Force Defense League” make outward statements about Parselmouths, questioning their integrity and trustworthiness and associating them with dark and evil magic. This is no doubt derived directly from the fact that both Salazar Slytherin and Lord Voldemort were Parselmouths, and that snakes are believed to be bonded to those who do evil. It is also unknown if there are any Parselmouths left after Harry defeats Voldemort and loses the ability to speak to snakes (gladly, he adds)—this makes me wonder if Parseltongue is like the modern day Latin, and is considered a “dead” language in the wizarding world. So, as anyone with a truly inquisitive mind would, I’m going to put my questions out there and hope for an answer (that’s your cue, J.K. Rowling!).

Something I found to be very strange when reading about Harry’s newly found skill is that he’s completely unaware of when he’s utilizing it. In Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry discovers that he is able to talk to snakes and has a brief discussion with a Boa Constrictor at the London Zoo, who we later discover is trying to get back to it’s native country of Brazil. However, Harry doesn’t realize that he’s speaking a completely different language until Chamber of Secrets when Ron exclaims “I didn’t know you were a Parselmouth!” after saving Justin Finch-Fletchley from a Snake attack. Is the ability to differentiate English and Parseltongue only found in those who learn the language and are not gifted it? Another example of this is in Deathly Hallows, when Nagini poses as Bathilda Bagshot and lures Harry into her home in Godric’s Hollow. Is Harry unaware that he is speaking Parseltongue with her?

Another strange revelation we come to understand in Half-Blood Prince is that Dumbledore can speak (or at least understand) Parseltongue. He is able to quote, verbatim, a memory from his penseive completely in the language surrounding Morfin Gaunt (who chose only to speak in Parseltongue). Although the reason for this is never made clear by J.K. Rowling, we can assume that he picked this up alongside some other hundred languages like Mermish and “Gobbledegook” or Goblinspeak. We also see that Parseltongue is easily mimicked, like when Ron opens the Chamber of Secrets by imitating the word “Open” which he had heard from Harry. As both Ron and Dumbledore were learned in Parseltongue and for Harry it was something he’d just known all his life, were they able to distinguish between the dialects when Harry could not?

Personally, I’m hoping we might see a glimpse more of Parseltongue in the new ‘Fantastic Beast’s’ film soon to be released. The language and its importance in Harry Potter has left many questions unanswered (at least for me), and I’d love to see them addressed in the new movie.

Also, if any of you are looking to learn a little Parseltongue yourself, head on over to The Parselmouth which is an English-to-Parseltongue translator!

  • phoenixflame22

    I honestly think that the fact that both Dumbledore and Ron were able to speak Parseltongue was more of an oops on JK’s part than anything else. Perhaps Dumbledore, as one of the most educated and brilliant wizards of them all, and the fact that having the Pensieve would allow him to view and ‘memorize’ the phrases of Parseltongue that he hears. Ron only heard Harry speak Parseltongue what twice, at the Dueling Club and in Myrtle’s bathroom (can’t think of any other time) and is able to speak in a magical language after only a couple of times. It just seems way too convenient IMO. Just wondering what other’s thoughts are on this.

    • Rebecca

      Ron was there when Harry opened the locket in the forest. So he heard the word “open” in Myrtle’s bathroom and then again five years later after pulling Harry out of the frozen pond.

    • Kirsty

      A pensieve memory seems to be a ‘perfect’ memory of the event, therefore Harry could understand Morfin in his normal way, while Dumbledore understood as a second language. As J.K said, the man is brilliant – and the important part is that he couldn’t speak it. I can listen to two french people (talking slowly )and pick up most of it, though don’t speak the language to any level, because it has similar roots to English. If he can learn mermish and gobbledegook, then surely he can learn to pick up the different sounds in Parseltounge. Perhaps SPEAKING it is inborn, while you can learn the intones and sounds required to understand. He was really interested in Riddle from the get-go, and if he had an inkling that Riddle was Salazar’s heir he probably would have made an effort to learn.

      Harry tried to say ‘Open’ several times in COS AND he says it to open the locket in DH, and if it’s a short phrase Ron could easily have memorised it (In the film the phrase changes between COS and DH1), You hear ‘bonjour’ once, know it means hello, and it’s not difficult to remember. It IS convenient, and like the Hallows a little bit of a cop-out plot point (but one I like), but not too unbelievable.

      Also: just because Dumbledore can understand and Ron can mimic – we’ve never seen them do this with actual snakes. Dumbledore may not be able to understand the animal, just the human speech version. Therefore speaking to snakes is inborn.

      Note: I have nothing against the French or their Language. It was just the first foreign language I could think of to use as an example. Please don’t have a go at me for it.

    • John Jankowski

      I thought about the subject of Parseltounge also many times and figured that speaking the language of Parseltounge and actually being able to talk to snakes are two subtle different things (although I am not sure this was JK’s intention or not). For example Dumbledore and Ron would be able to learn to speak Parseltounge but would not be able to talk directly to snakes (as snakes don’t have ears I would assume it would have to be magical of some sort) nor would snakes be able to talk to them.

  • Ben

    We need to remember that Harry Potter is the strangest boy in the history of the Wizarding World. Rowling admits it several times, most of them through Dumbledore. In the case of Morfin, he chooses to speak Parseltongue at all times. He can differentiate between it and English. Voldemort can do this as well; we see proof of this in Morfin’s memory. Harry, because he was cursed with the gift, which inherently belongs to Voldemort, does not notice and seems to have little control over it when he speaks–hardly like a true Parselmouth. Thus, your question “Is the ability to differentiate English and Parseltongue only found in those who learn the language and are not gifted it?” is answered: Those born with the gift can differentiate. Harry, cursed with the gift, has a difficult time doing so (and often needs guidance in speaking and discerning it).

    It’s also important to remember that, in Godric’s Hollow, Nagini never speaks to Harry until he is alone. Harry thinks he is speaking to a human, and If he were speaking Parseltongue, Hermione would have noticed the moment it happened. It is doubtful that Harry is speaking Parseltongue at this moment.

    In the case of Ron and Dumbledore, who leanred bits of it (most of it, in Dumbledore’s case), it is hardly a cop out or an oops on Rowling’s part (as stated in other comments). She builds it up over seven books for heaven’s sake (six in Ron’s case). Ron takes action (which, in the books, is usual for him–as compared to the films where he is depicted as an absolute moron) and percieves the word “open.” He uses his intellect (he’s a chess champion, if you remember, so he knows strategy) to store away this information, just in case he needs to use it in the future for more Horcruxes. It’s no accident that he remembers–it’s a deliberate choice. And he’s able to act on this information when Dumbledore’s Army needs it most. They were naturally able to distinguish it as a different language–I doubt it is a magical happenstance that all the sudden you can speak or understand it, but rather it is like learning a new language. Because Parseltongue is just that–a different language.

    The fact that snakes have their own language (which humans can learn to understand) is fascinating to me. Does this mean that lions, badgers, and eagles all have languages which wizards can learn, too? Or are snakes simply of the same level of intellect as Mermen, Goblins, and humans? That’s what I would like to know.

  • ‘laine

    It has been noted that many young children who have one set of grandparents who are fluent in a different language to the one the rest of the family is will learn that language, but only when talking to the grandparents. For example, if Be n’s grandparents speak Spanish but his parents only talk to him in English, he will speak English with most people but will unknowingly switch to Spanish when talking to his grandparents. Until someone makes a deal of it, the children may not realize they’re speaking another language. I got the feeling that Harry’s relationship with Parseltongue was similar.