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!