Parseltongue; most probably derived either from “parcel” a verb; to divide and distribute, or, “parse” to analyze structure by examination of the *parts* of the whole, as in "parsing" a sentence; in either case an oblique reference to the fact that snakes have divided tongues, is identified as the language specific to serpents. At this point it is unknown whether other creatures with divided tongues also speak this language.
Wizards who have the gift of being able to communicate with snakes are commonly referred to as Parselmouths. This particular talent, even among wizards, is described as being exceedingly rare.
It is not, however, so rare as not to be widely known and recognized by wizards worldwide. As one of the very earliest of all wizarding abilities to have been identified, in fact. Parseltongue has a long and chequered history. Indeed, prehistory.
The association of Parseltongue, or rather, of Parselmouths with Dark magic is an unfortunate side effect of the gift’s extreme rarity. The talent itself was first recognized in prehistoric times, and the Parselmouth’s rapport with a beast which was both so potentially dangerous and so heavily laden with symbolic significance as the serpent was a major contributing factor to the establishment of wizards as the shamans and priests of their tribes.
Prehistoric magic, as has already been stated elsewhere, was, by necessity, Dark magic, and many of the spells and procedures developed by early Parselmouths which made use of this rare ability have not ever been remade to operate through the indirect channeling methods of domestic magic. The gift is so rare that there have been few wizards who were equipped to undertake such a project, and those who have the necessary ability, have clearly seen no practical purpose to be gained in doing so.
Which is perfectly reasonable, since, as far as the gift itself goes; although the exercise of this gift is technically classified as Dark magic, the classification, in this case, is misleading. For, while there is no currently known method of being able to communicate with snakes through any sort of indirect channeling of magical energies, the actual amount of magical energy which is channeled in this process is too low to be harmful to even the youngest or most low-powered wizard or witch.
I was inordinately pleased to see that Rowling had Professor Dumbledore confirm my suspicion, that the gift itself is not evil. That particular contention of my own, stated in the spring of 2003, is one of the oldest in the collection, even if not an issue of particularly large significance. Parseltongue seems to have functioned as primarily a useful means by which Harry has been able to acquire information which is not accessible to others. Finally in DHs his ability to speak it enabled him to perform a function that at that point no one else would have been qualified to.
And, no, I do not believe that Ron Weasley, five months after the fact, with no training, would have been able to imitate the sounds well enough to have done the same. That was shoddy plotting and shoddy writing, and I flatly reject it. He and Hermione ought to have pinched the school Pensieve from the Headmaster’s office, taken it down to Myrtle’s loo, extracted the memory of Harry speaking it — either from the Forest of Dean with the Locket, or back in CoS right there — and replayed it publicly the way Albus had replayed Trelawney giving the Prophecy, and let the memory of Harry open the passage. Harry has told them about that Pensieve. Hermione has probably read about how to operate one (and has the books there in her bag). Ron would certainly deserve due credit for remembering it.
And they'd need it again when they needed to open the Chamber.
And if they'd done it then, maybe they'd think to have taken it with them when they went to the shack.
At this point it is unclear whether Parselmouth might even turn out to be one of those uncommon magical traits, such as the true seer’s gift of “sight” which may even occasionally manifest in individuals whose psychic abilities are so low as to classify them as Squibs, unable to channel enough magical energy to register at birth as being wizards at all. In any event, no wizard or witch has ever been documented as coming to any degree of psychic harm merely through conversing with snakes.
To normal human ears, Parseltongue, when expressed by a human wizard, is a hissing and spitting without drawing breath. When expressed by a snake, however, it seems to produce no sound at all. At most it would be a simple hissing of air. Snakes, like most reptiles, hiss, because snakes, like all other land animals and amphibians, breathe. Snakes do not, however, produce vocalized sounds, because they do not possess vocal cords, or, indeed any sort of vocal apparatus. (They also do not possess ears, or hearing centers in their tiny pea brains, and are consequently deaf, but let that pass.)
Nor, for that matter, do snakes possess eyelids. In Harry’s exchange with the boa constrictor in the zoo, however, Harry understood the snake to have both heard him, and spoken to him, and, in addition, winked at him. It seems reasonable to assume that both the voice and the wink were some form of psychic projection, which Harry was able to receive, interpret and to respond to in kind, while the exchange remained either inaudible — or unintelligible, and invisible to onlookers.
Consequently, we must conclude that snakes themselves are inherently psychically active on some limited “frequency” that a few rare wizards are able to access. Rather like some creatures being able to “see” into the infa-red range of the light spectrum. Therefore it seems reasonable to postulate that this frequency is positioned at either end of the magical “scale” since both of the wizards who have demonstrated this ability in canon resonated best to phoenix feather wands which seem calibrated to transmit magical frequencies at greater force, rather than within a specifice range. That is, if the wand type of the wizard is even relevant to the issue. It may not be. We do not know the wand types favored by the members of the Gaunt family, or indeed by Salazar Slytherin, who are the only other Parselmouths on record, in Britain, although we know that there have been others elsewhere.
The passage of Newt Scamander’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them describing the African Runespoor states that the information regarding this rare, three-headed snake was made available to wizarding researchers by Parselmouths, who could understand the dialogue between the Runespoor’s three heads. That there were multiple Parselmouths available to make such observations of these beasts leads me to postulate that Parselmouths, while rare, may nevertheless sometimes occur spontaneously — chiefly in those parts of the world that are particularly rich both in number and variety of serpents.
Northwestern Europe and the British Isles are not one of these regions. To be sure, there are snakes found native to Europe as far north as the arctic circle. But the climate of most of Europe is not particularly hospitable to serpents and comparatively few varieties are to be found there when compared to warmer areas such as Africa, Southern Asia, the Middle East, the Americas and Australia. I would hazard a guess that no Parselmouth has ever occurred spontaneously in Northwestern Europe, or in any of the other more temperate climactic zones of the globe.
However, Parselmouth, like most other magical traits, can be inherited by any of the descendants of the wizards who have manifested this gift, once it is has occurred in their particular bloodlines. And in fact it has been shown to have “bred true” among the Gaunts, to the point that they were able to use it among themselves at home. This was no doubt assisted by their unsavory, and unwise, practice of intermarrying mostly among their own cousins. And the descendants of any such gifted bloodline can certainly migrate from the geographic area where the gift first spontaneously occurred.
It seems probable, then, that Parselmouth was introduced to Great Britain by way of either Salazar Slytherin himself, or through one of his ancestors, possibly by way of the Phoenician traders who had dealings with the tin mines in the west. Although, given that he himself is credited as having hailed from the fens, if this is the case, there would have been some migration among his forebearers since that early date. Given the rarity of this gift, in Europe, it is probable that all known British Parselmouths have been able to trace their descent to the same originating bloodline (which, if all such matters are parallel within the Potterverse to our own world, would include one rather well-known Irish Saint). Which might explain some of the confusion and disquiet of the onlookers when the gift was publicly manifested by Harry Potter, who has no known connection — so far as we know — to the Slytherin bloodline. There may be a few other such known Parselmouth bloodlines on the Continent, but we have not as yet been informed of this.
The former Tom Riddle’s sweeping statement that he and Harry Potter may have been the only Parselmouths to have ever attended Hogwarts since Slytherin, on the other hand, is almost certainly untrue. Tom Riddle frequently makes false exaggerated statements in order to impress whoever he is speaking to. (Mm. Who does that remind us of? Er, not Albus. Albus already knows he’s impressive. His likes are typically for the purpose of concealing things.)
Difficult as it is to imagine either Merope or Morfin Gaunt ever having attended Hogwarts, the probability is that they at least attended up to the point of sitting the OWLs, for the Ministry of Magic did permit them both to bear wands. Indeed, Riddle’s statement was probably prompted by his actually having met Morfin Gaunt. I might have concluded that the man had no schooling whatsoever, myself.
However, regardless of Riddle’s impressions of his uncle Morfin, the Gaunts are certainly listed in the books of wizarding families (i.e., genealogies) kept as references at Hogwarts, for that is where Riddle has to have found the information he used to trace his maternal grandfather. And, being listed, they were certainly sent Hogwarts letters when their names showed up on the enrollment list. We already also know that there is a fund which covers the requirements of students in financial need. Tom’s disdain of his mother’s family in itself is not convincing evidence to establish that they did not attend.
Such reference books on wizarding families are probably kept for the use of the Deputy Head to determine which projected students are likely to be Muggle-born and will need their Hogwarts letters delivered by hand. As well as for the use of those members of pureblood families who are determined to retain their pureblood distinction, thereby tracing the bloodlines of prospective marriage partners to whom they might form an attachment while at school.
That further relevant issue to the question of the Gaunts: is the issue of what constitutes a “qualified” wizard. Only such qualified wizards are legally permitted to own and use wands. Underage wizards are permitted wands only with the tacit understanding that they will use them only for training purposes, under supervision, until they attain their majority and have been properly qualified. Clearly such “qualifications” must be rather low.
We’ve already seen that when Hagrid was expelled from Hogwarts, his wand was snapped. Over 50 years later he has still never been given the go-ahead to replace the broken wand and live openly as a wizard. Evidently by the 20th century, one must both be of age and be “qualified” in order to live openly as a wizard. It seems likely that we have already got as much information on the subject as Rowling is ever likely to give us. But the indications to this point are that one “qualifies” as a witch or wizard by receiving passing marks on some minimum number of the OWLs, and attaining your seventeenth birthday. This supposition may be off-base, but unless Rowling offers more information on the subject we have only what she has given us to date to reason from. We do not know the minimum number of OWLs necessary to qualify a wizard as a wizard. But the fact that the Weasley twins each received 3 OWLs suggests that they may have put in only enough effort to comply with the bare minimum to scrape a qualification each. Given that their own father is a Ministry lifer, they would probably know.
A failure to pass a given OWL disqualifies you from further study in that subject, apparently, unless a remedial class is available, which for some subjects it is. But there may be students who do so poorly that they simply do not return after their 5th year. The indications are that Stan Shunpike is one such. Still, there has been no verification that lackluster educational success disqualifies you from retaining your wand. And the likelihood of a student failing all of his subjects is rather distant, even when one considers the Gaunts.
The first scene that we witnessed regarding the House of Gaunt, took place in the summer of 1925, when Bob Ogden was responding to a complaint by the DMLE of an attack made by a wizard on a Muggle.
That Morfin Gaunt was in possession of a wand when he was arrested, and that his wand was returned to him after his release from Azkaban three years later, is a strong indication that he “qualified” as a wizard. That Merope was left in possession of her wand when the DMLE took away her father and brother strongly suggests that she was understood to be “qualified” as a witch.
They did not have to have attended Hogwarts, of course. Durmstrang may have been more to the family’s taste. Particularly if my suspicions as to the end of Salazar Slytherin are wrong, and he merely stomped off to the other end of Europe to found Durmstrang Academy, according to his own principles, and run it as he pleased.
However, Salazar was already old when he left Hogwarts, and his own children were probably already grown, and they may not have shared their father’s resentment of the place, nor did they all choose to leave Britain with him. Durmstrang is not in England and I tend to doubt that it is a non-fee paying institution, such as Hogwarts. The Gaunts had long ago beggared themselves through bad choices and I very much doubt that Marvolo Gaunt could afford to send his children to Durmstrang.
And, for all that there might be a family recollection of contempt for the school which Slytherin left, 1000 years is a long time. The family had worked its way through several changes of name and fortune and Salazar Slytherin was still honored as a founder of the place, which would be at least some advantage. You get the feeling that Marvolo Gaunt was the sort of man to take any advantage that he could. The probability was that he and his children had indeed attended Hogwarts.
And Tom Riddle found a record of Marvolo Gaunt at Hogwarts, and enough information to be able to trace his address years later, after all.
In addition, Caractacus Burke’s information about his acquiring the locket leads nowhere in itself. There must have been some association to provide grounds for Albus’s leap to Bob Ogden and his dealings with the Gaunts. Although the fact that Tiberius Ogden, school examiner and former member of the Wizengamot, is an associate and admirerer of Dumbledore’s the possibility exists that Dumbledore had already been told the anecdote of Bob’s face-off with a family of Parselmouths.
It is likely that Dumbledore, knowing Riddle claimed to be a Parselmouth, went specifically looking for someone who might have had some recollection of the Gaunts. And it is hard to believe that he would have known of the Gaunts at all if none of them had ever shown up at Hogwarts. If Albus is correct about Merope’s age she would have finished mot much more than a decade earlier, and if Morin had stayed on for the NEWTS he might have been there as recently, too.
Dumbledore’s statement in passing that Merope was 18 years of age in the scene in which we witnessed the last day she ever saw her father or brother suggests that he may remember her from a school context, but that may only mean that he looked up her school records and birth date as noted by the Hogwarts quill afterward, while he was tracing the background of Tom Riddle.
And, if this is so, unless she had continued no further with her schooling than sitting her OWLs, it is possible that she had only just that summer completed her stay at Hogwarts. Indeed, her determination to entrap Tom Riddle may have been due to her no longer having the prospect of Hogwarts to escape to at the end of the summer. It isn't just fatherless boys who may have considered the castle their only true home. Motherless daughters have also found it a welcome refuge.
Of course, her time at Hogwarts is likely not to have been much of an escape. Morfin seems close enough in age to have been able to keep an eye (one at a time, of course) on his sister for most of the time she was there. By the time he finished school, her position in whatever had been the established pecking order was too set in stone to change. And if Morfin continued into NEWT studies (difficult to believe, but not absolutely impossible, his magic seems strong enough at any rate) while Merope was kept home after sitting the OWLs, then their time as school may have entirely coincided. Dumbledore’s little witticism that perhaps Marvolo had simply never learned to feed himself I think can be safely placed in the same category as his stated uncertainty as to whether his own brother knows how to read.
Riddle’s inflated statement is, perfectly in keeping with both his determination to regard himself as special, and his apparently standard practice of attempting to immediately establish some sense of “connection” between himself and whatever person he is attempting to influence. But the statement itself is almost certainly false.
A rather interesting question arises related to our Pensieve visits to the Gaunt’s household that no one I’ve encountered seems to have asked: was Albus a Parselmouth? Those conversations were conducted chiefly in Parseltongue. Did he understand the meaning of the words through Legilimency, or through some terribly sophisticated translation charm, or did he actually understand what was being said? From his comments to Harry he seems to have been perfectly conversant with what was being said. (Which raises the question of whether he also was hearing the Basilisk in the pipes back in CoS.)
Evidently, acto Rowling, a human wizard who is not a Parselmouth may, with difficulty and some training, be able to understand the language when it is expressed by another wizard, even if he cannot understand it, or may not even be aware of it when it is expressed by a snake. Rowling has confirmed in interviews that Albus Dumbledore was, indeed, able to understand Parseltongue. He also demonstrated that he understands (and is able to speak) Merrow, which can hardly be significantly less difficult.
Of course she later flip-flopped and claimed that Parseltongue wasn’t a language that humans could learn. She did not, however, claim that it was a language that magic would be unable to translate — once it was expressed audibly, that is. Otherwise Albus’s campaign to secure Morfin Gaunt’s release from Azkaban is completely impossible and unworkable, since Morfin was unable to tell Albus what had actually taken place. He had no recollection of having ever met his nephew.
Ergo: there must be some way in which wizards are able to access it — at least when spoken by a Parselmouth (not a snake). Otherwise far too many of Albus's statements and claims simply fall apart as untenable. It is likely that there is some variant of translation spell which can decipher the human meaning of the speech when it is spoken by a human being, with a human brain. Given that the whole issue of Parseltongue appears to be a form of psychic projection this ought to fall within the parameters of the possible.
One could also use such a spell at leisure to decipher the speech as recorded in a Pensieve memory.
It does not answer the question of where Albus might have learned it, according to Rowling’s original statement however. Which is probably why she changed her story. Even if he had known it. It is an outside possibility that his own time at Hogwarts may have overlapped that of Marvolo Gaunt, or that of Marvolo’s late wife, who was probably a cousin, and probably also a Parselmouth. Harry’s estimation of Marvolo being “elderly” in 1925, may not have been altogether accurate. He was wrinkled, but his hair had not yet gone grey. Now that Rowling has repositioned Albus Dumbledore’s birth year in 1881, Marvolo could have been not more than 50 at that point and still been at school when Albus arrived around 1892 or ’93. But this is likely to be an inquery which will lead nowhere.
However, if Dumbledore understood, or was able to translate the conversation in Bob Ogden’s memory, why did he go to speak with Morfin in Azkaban at all? I’d assumed that it was to get a translation from the Parseltongue for the Bob Ogden memory. But if he could follow that family quarrel in the first place was he simply following every available lead on the locket?
And did he *find* the memories in the order he showed them to Harry? Or did the uncovered memory from Morfin send him to Bob Ogden, whose report had led to Morfin’s earlier arrest?
And more to the point, how could he mount that campaign to secure Morfin’s release from Azkaban — as he claims he did — without producing the recovered memory as evidence, and providing some form of translation? I think there must be a charm which will allow a non-Parseltongue wizard or witch to understand Parselmouths without needing to study the language. Unfortunately, I haven’t a lot of confidence that these are details that Rowling intends to fill us in on.
It was Albus Dumbledore’s stated contention in CoS that Harry Potter is only able to manifest this gift due to his proximity to the destruction of Voldemort’s original body when the curse that the Dark Lord had thrown at Harry rebounded. That, in short, Harry received this gift, and possibly others, by what was effectively a magical “transfusion”. According to the Changeling hypothesis posted in the other section of this collection, the overall procedure was rather more far-reaching that that, although this was an acceptable simplification to be given to a 12-year-old.
And, for that matter, Harry’s command of this gift does seem to be imperfect. Although he can hear the language whenever it is spoken, he is only able to express Parseltongue when he has managed to convince himself that he is speaking to an actual snake. It is clearly implied that this is not normally the case among Parselmouths who have had this talent from birth, given that the Gaunts seem to be in the habit of even speaking in Parseltongue among themselves. We have also been shown that Voldemort is able to express Parseltongue for the purpose of calling his snake companion to him when the snake herself is not physically present. He also probably was speaking Parseltongue to open the passage through Slytherin’s statue in order to call the Basilisk. For that matter the Diary revenant may have slipped into speaking Parseltongue to Harry. Harry is usually not altogether able to determine whether the language he hears is Parseltongue or English. Having come by it late and artificially, it is also uncertain whether Harry will retain it (he didn’t, acto Rowling) or to pass it on to his own descendants (unlikely), should he survive to have any.
It is also not yet been determined whether the ability to access the psychic frequency needed to receive and express Parselmouth can be induced by less drastic means than by a miraculously-deflected killing curse, wielded by a Parselmouth with a brittle and unstable soul. But Ms Rowling has already stated in the joint interview of July 2005, that Ginny Weasley did not retain this ability once she was freed from possession by the Diary revenant. Once again, Harry Potter’s case seems to be unique.