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J.K. Rowling has stated that Dumbledore was fluent¹ in English, Mermish, Gobbledygook, and Parseltongue. If this is so: Why didn't Dumbledore hear the Basilisk during the events in Chamber of Secrets? There's nothing to indicate Dumbledore was hard of hearing (no ear trumpet!) and he spent enough time in the castle that surely he would have been near the Basilisk at least once or twice. Is there any canon-based explanation for this?

¹What J.K. Rowling actually said was that Dumbledore understands Mermish, Parseltongue, and Gobbledygook. That's enough of a difference from fluency that I felt I should mention this. Further, J.K. Rowling has this to say about learning Parseltongue:

Q: Since Ron is able to speak Parseltongue in the last book, does that mean that Parseltongue is a language that most witches and wizards can learn or must a person be born with some ability to speak Parseltongue?

JKR: I don't see it really as a language you can learn. So few people speak it that who would teach you? This is a weird ability passed down through the Slytherin blood line. However Ron was with Harry when he said one word in Parseltongue, which I do not know so I cannot duplicate for you, but he heard him say "Open," and he was able to reproduce the sound. So it was one word. Whether he could learn to speak to snakes properly is a separate issue. I don't think he could. But he knew enough, he was smart enough, to duplicate one necessary sound.

[ J.K. ROWLING AT CARNEGIE HALL - 10.20.07 - TRANSCRIPT FROM THE LEAKY CAULDRON ]

So where does this leave Dumbledore when it comes to Parseltongue?

  • Does Parseltongue specifically mean "speaking to snakes" or is a general term for being able to speak to an animal? Maybe Dumbledore's Parseltongue is for ferrets. – Jack B Nimble Apr 23 '12 at 4:26
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    It does specifically mean the ability to speak to snakes, and I read an interview with JKR where she explains that Parselmouth is a very old term that was once used toward people with a cleft palate. I thought that was interesting in a strange way. :) – Slytherincess May 24 '12 at 3:06
  • Well picked up. Also, Dumbledore was present when the Heir of Slytherin first opened the chamber and people were killed/petrified. – Möoz Apr 14 '14 at 2:21
  • I want to know if any non-Parselmouth students/staff heard the basilisk? Just because they can't understand Parseltongue doesn't mean they can't hear it. Justin and Ron clearly heard when Harry spoke Parseltongue. Students should have heard odd hissing/whispering noises when the basilisk was slithering around behind the walls. – RichS Sep 15 '17 at 18:14

12 Answers 12

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OK, J.K. Rowling did state that

Dumbledore understood Mermish, Gobbledegook and Parseltongue. The man was brilliant.

It is still not clear how well he understood Parseltongue. The way I read The House of Gaunt (Chapter 10 of Deathly Hallows), he knows enough to understand what Morphin says about Merope and Tom Riddle Senior. However, it may be that he had to visit his Pensieve several times to get everything.

My guess is that Dumbledore can understand Parseltongue if he is prepared to hear it. So if he was close to the Basilisk only one or twice, he may have taken it for background noise.

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  1. Dumbledore doesn't generally gallivant all over the castle. He's a Headmaster - he sits in his office, does research, has meetings, or goes to the Great Hall. I don't recall him being mentioned anywhere in the Castle outside of his office or the Great Hall unless he was directly responding to a specific emergency (usually including Harry).

  2. The basilisk doesn't seem to be running all over the castle. Harry only hears it once in a while, and he hangs out near the girl's bathroom (aka Basilisk Station) a lot.

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    I just want to emphasise this bit: "[Harry] hangs out near the girl's bathroom (aka Basilisk Station) a lot." – dlanod Apr 23 '12 at 4:24
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    I won't claim that he gallivants, but he gets out of his office. For example, in OOTP, he describes walking the halls "with an exceptionally full bladder" and finding a room with nothing but chamber pots (Room of Requirement). He places the Invisibility Cloak in Gryffindor Tower for Harry. He eats at the high table. He attends Quidditch matches. Outside of Hogwarts he visits the Ministry, The Three Broomsticks, the Burrow, No. 4 Privet Drive, Hagrid's house, to name a few. He also goes Horcrux hunting. I think he's relatively active. – Slytherincess Oct 3 '12 at 1:06
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    Regarding whether or not he understands Parseltongue, I just can't imagine that he doesn't. In Deathly Hallows, chapter 10, The House of Gaunt (as Hendrik Vogt notes), Dumbledore seems perfectly able to understand Morphin and Marvolo Gaunt when they speak in Parseltongue, just as he is able to understand and speak to Merchieftainess Murcus in Goblet of Fire, chapter 26, The Second Task. :) – Slytherincess Oct 3 '12 at 1:20
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    Actually, the name Dumbledore refers to bees and the fact that Rowling always imagined Dumbledore wandering the castle halls humming. I'm sorry I completely forget where I read this, (It may have been the scholastic Reader's Club discussion guide), but the point is that Rowling herself says he wandered the Castle. Point 2 still stands, however. – balanced mama Jan 16 '13 at 3:11
  • The Wikia states that Dumbledore had learned to understand Parseltongue but could not speak it, and the reference given there is an interview with JKR. – N Unnikrishnan May 11 '14 at 22:10
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Parseltongue is a magical language that snakes understand - and, conversely, a Parselmouth understands snakes. But nothing says it is the same language, just that Parseltongue is made of hissing sounds. It could be be that someone who is not a Parselmouth can learn to understand Parseltongue, but not snakes, if it isn't the same thing.

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Why didn't Dumbledore hear the Basilisk during the events in Chamber of Secrets?

I think the basilisk is conscious as to whom is it talking to. I doubt the basilisk would want to talk with Dumbledore.

Also note that, at that moment, the basilisk was most likely just following orders: And to be honest, I don't think that Tom Riddle would like having it speak with Dumbledore.

So, how can I prove that the basilisk is indeed conscious of who is hearing it? Well, let us be realistic here: what kind of being speaks up alone things like "Kill... KILL...!!!" - no, it must be talking to someone. So it is indeed conscious.

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    This is an interesting premise. How would you say the Basilisk knows who it's talking to. I ask because the Basilisk was moving through the castle through the plumbing and I'm not sure -- when it was within the walls -- how it knew who was there and who was not. Know what I mean? :) – Slytherincess Oct 3 '12 at 13:18
  • I can't tell how, but it seems to be the case anyway: we know that the Basilisk most likely told Tom Riddle where the chamber was (I really doubt anyone would think of going to a girls bathroom and say "Open" just like that lol) - so we do know that, somehow, the Basilisk does know who is it talking to. – Voldemort Oct 3 '12 at 16:57
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    I figured the Basilisk was talking to itself actually. Reminding itself of what it was supposed to be doing? Stating its desires, but speaking to itself. Crazy evil beings (including humans) say things like this to themselves in all sorts of stories. – balanced mama Jan 16 '13 at 3:14
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    So when Harry heard the Basilisk, was the Basilisk intending for Harry to hear? – Möoz Apr 14 '14 at 2:23
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    While I doubt it was trying to talk to Harry, If the Basilisk was trying to talk to Harry it would most likely be because it recognises Harry's link to Voldemort. I would also like to add that it is likely that Tom Riddle would be aware of what Dumbledore is capable of as he was a student at the time of Dumbledore. – Pharap Apr 16 '14 at 20:27
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My only answer is that Dumbledore would not often go walking around the castle. He had his business with the Order and such, and it would be kind of creepy if he kept going near the girls' toilet just to fully understand the basilisk.

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    The Order wasn't reopened until the beginning if OOTP. – ike Dec 9 '13 at 15:48
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One can learn to imitate the sounds of Parseltongue, and one can learn to understand another human who is speaking Parseltongue. What one can't learn, because it's an ability you're either born with1 or not, is to hear snakes speak. (In this sense, "Parselmouth" is a bit of a misnomer: it should be "Parselear" or some such.)

For example, in the scene where Harry and Draco are dueling and Harry speaks to the snake, it's clear that the other students only heard Harry speaking in the strange hissing language; to the extent that they heard the snake make any sound at all, it didn't sound like a language to them -- it was just the noise of the snake slithering on the ground or whatever.

Dumbledore couldn't hear the basilisk because he wasn't a Parselmouth. If he heard any noises, they would have sounded to him like the pipes acting up, not like a snake speaking, because he wasn't born with the ability to hear snakes speaking.

1 OK, OK, so technically Harry wasn't born with the ability, he just acquired it from someone who was. Point is, it's a talent you can't acquire via learning.

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    The snake never said anything to Harry in the duelling scene, though, did it? It just looked at him and then backed away. Even Nagini doesn't utter a single Parselword throughout the series. Apart from the basilisk, the only instance of a snake talking is the “Thanksssssss, amigo” hissed by the escaping boa constrictor at the zoo. Take that away (not half unlikely Harry imagined it anyway), and the basilisk becomes the only talking serpent in the series—and even the basilisk remains completely shtum down in the Chamber. Maybe snakes only talk in pipes. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 31 '15 at 21:53
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    Actually, no, I take that back. Nagini does speak once, to inform Voldemort of the presence of Frank Bryce on the landing outside the room. If o recall correctly, Frank heard just a hiss, whereas when Voldemort replies to Nagini, he hears it as a spluttering kind of noise, showing that snakes talking and people speaking Parseltongue do in fact sound different from one another. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 31 '15 at 21:58
  • @JanusBahsJacquet: don't forget Bathilda Bagshot, or rather, Nagini posing as Bathilda Bagshot, in the last book. In the movie, she doesn't speak, but I believe in the book she does speak once she gets Harry alone. – Martha Jul 31 '15 at 22:34
  • I don't remember the dueling scene too well, so you might be right that that snake doesn't speak. I'll have to look this up next time I'm near my books, which might be a while. – Martha Jul 31 '15 at 22:36
  • Oh yes, Bathilda! Completely forgot about that. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 31 '15 at 22:37
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Harry heard it because he happened to be in the right place at the right time ... or the wrong place at the wrong time depending on your outlook. I think it is all down to chance whether it could be heard with someone with the ability to understand it - the chance being that you are near where it is when it's speaking!

  • I'm for this answer. – Möoz Apr 14 '14 at 2:25
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Tom Riddle was the heir of Slytherin, therefore he could control the basilisk; When Voldemort tried to kill Harry Potter, he failed and instead unwittingly created the horcrux in Harry - Meaning that part of the Slytherin heir was transferred to Harry. This is why Harry got the brother wand of Voldemort's, why Harry can speak parseltongue, why Harry can hear the Basilisk, and why Dumbledore cannot. I'd be willing to bet that Tom Riddle could also hear the Basilisk in the walls when he was at Hogwarts.

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    But all you need to hear the Basilisk is the ability to understand parseltongue, which dumbldore can. – AncientSwordRage Sep 23 '12 at 10:17
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There is no real indication that Dumbledore understood Parseltongue in Book Two, so it is possible he didn't know it then. Given that J.K. Rowling indicated that it could really only be taught by an existing Parselmouth, it is entirely possible that Albus "lifted" it via Legilmency from Harry or Morphin once he realized that he was going to need it for the memories in Book Six. (Or had Harry teach it the hard way at some point during the school years off-camera, however, this seems less likely to me given that it probably would have received a mention.)

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We have already eatablished that it is likely that Dumbledore could probably somewhat recognize parseltongue & therefore probably speak it somewhat through mimicking. However, it is likely that he couldn't hear the basilisk the way Harry Potter did because Parselmouth(should be parselEar) is what is required to hear the snake's language and Dumbledore wasn't a Parselmouth. It seems to me that Parseltongue is different and separate from the actual language snakes speak.

This was all mentioned further up and sounds completely reasonable to me. Why else would there be two different words describing the same thing? Thus the need for Parseltongue and Parselmouth.

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I was thinking if harry could understand parseltongue (okay through the part of voldemorts soul attached to him) why didn't he hear it when he first/soon after got to Hogwarts. regarding Dumbledore he may have been able to learn to hear parseltongue (the books do say his reluctance to use dark magic to enhance his power) but don't the books say only the heir of slytherin could control the basilisk?

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    Hi @joshua, please add more references and sources in your answer. Also check if it adds useful information on what has already been said. Regards. – Bebs V Dec 5 '16 at 9:32
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I think Parseltongue between people is simply a spoken language, but with snakes, I think it may be more of a telepathic connection. Dumbledore may understand Parseltongue but he can't speak it, so I don't think he would be able to hear it either. Only a Parselmouth would have heard the Basilisk's hissing, unless it was right on top of them, of course.

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    Doesn't fluency imply the ability to speak it? Otherwise do you have a source for him not speaking it? – Edlothiad Sep 15 '17 at 18:01

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