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I can't remember any specific instances when Harry knew that he was speaking Parseltongue aside from the one instance in the Chamber of Secrets, where he used it to open the locked door to the chamber.

The following instances are those that I can think of where he does not know that he is speaking Parseltongue:

  • Sorcerer's Stone - he speaks to the snake in the cage at the zoo.

  • Chamber of Secrets - he tells Draco's conjured snake not to attack another student.

  • Deathly Hollows - he speaks with Bathilda Bagshot (who is actually Nagini).

This question arises mostly because of the last item on the list from Deathly Hollows. Nagini did not speak to Harry until Hermione was out of earshot, so that she did not immediately hear them speaking Parseltongue (Hermione would immediately know).

What confuses me is the following: On several occasions, Harry is unconscious of the fact that he is speaking Parseltongue. However, in at least one situation, he consciously uses the language to perform a task. The latter of those make me believe that Harry is able to consciously control his usage of the language, yet in Deathly Hollows, where he seems to have more command over his magical powers, he uses the language unconsciously and it almost gets him killed.

So my question is, particularly: Why does Harry not know, at such an imperative time (Bathilda Bagshot's home), that he is being spoken to in Parseltongue when he demonstrates an ability to consciously control it even in his second year?

PS - Magical languages may be different, but being someone who speaks two languages I find it practically impossible to be unaware of when someone is speaking my second language to me.

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    I'd imagine it's because it's an aspect of his soul that is part Voldemort. He can control it, but that doesn't necessarily mean he's always conscious of it. Unlike learning another language this is something that happened to him as a baby. He probably wouldn't retain conscience memory of it, nor be able to differentiate between it and his normal manner of communicating. It wasn't a skill he developed or worked at unlike you actively learning another language. – Meat Trademark Jun 2 '14 at 5:12
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    You may be right, but I'm wondering if anyone has any specific canon answers ;) as an added note, Harry opens the Horcrux (amulet) in Deathly Hollows by telling it to open in Parseltongue. This is especially confusing because here he is actually controlling this ability of his, when (almost literally) a few hours previous (in Bathilda's house), he did not notice that she was speaking to him in Parseltongue, nor that he was responding in the same language. Very very confusing... – Chris Cirefice Jun 2 '14 at 5:30
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    "being someone who speaks two languages I find it practically impossible to be unaware of when someone is speaking my second language to me." Here's an anecdotal account of someone being unaware of exactly that in real life. – Joe White Jun 2 '14 at 5:30
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    Anecdotal, but I know a few people whose second language is English. They've been known to slip once a in a while and start speaking in their native language for a few moments without noticing it - usually when they're excited/upset or drunk. – phantom42 Jun 2 '14 at 10:54
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    Just to chime in that my mother pretty much routinely speaks to her son-in-law in Hungarian without realizing it, and when we call her on it, she genuinely doesn't believe us. This is without her being excited, upset, or drunk. It's not quite the same thing as Harry, though: my mom absentmindedly speaks in her primary language, and she's not fluent in her second language; while Harry absentmindedly speaks in his secondary language, and as far as we can tell he's equally fluent in both languages. – Martha Aug 27 '14 at 7:07
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As far as I recall, he's not capable of consciously controlling his use of Parseltongue. When faced with a living, breathing snake he's never not spoken in Parseltongue - I guess that means that on a subconscious/magical level he knew that Bathilda Bagshot was actually Nagini. The only time he's demonstrated what might be considered conscious usage of Parseltongue is when trying very hard to imagine an image of a snake as a living creature (e.g. the tap in Moaning Myrtle's bathroom and Slytherin's locket). That's really just tricking whatever controls his subconscious usage of Parseltongue into thinking he's in the presence of a living snake, though.

As for why he never realises he's speaking Parseltongue, I imagine it's because of the way his speaking Parseltongue works. He hisses the words instead of speaking in English, and he hears Parseltongue as English words. It's a magical, rather than conscious, translation from one language to the other. He doesn't realise he's speaking another language because he hears exactly what he'd expect to if he was still speaking English: the English words he intended to say in his own voice.

“But —” Harry thought hard. The only times he’d ever managed to speak Parseltongue were when he’d been faced with a real snake. He stared hard at the tiny engraving, trying to imagine it was real.

“Open up,” he said.

He looked at Ron, who shook his head.

“English,” he said.

Harry looked back at the snake, willing himself to believe it was alive. If he moved his head, the candlelight made it look as though it were moving.

“Open up,” he said.

Except that the words weren’t what he heard; a strange hissing had escaped him, and at once the tap glowed with a brilliant white light and began to spin.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Chapter 16 - The Chamber of Secrets

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    I disagree with your theory for one important reason. In The Deathly Hallows he consciously used Parseltongue to open the horcrux before Ron struck it with The Sword of Gryffindor. From Chapter 19, The Silver Doe: “I’m going to ask it to open, using Parseltongue,” said Harry. The answer came so readily to his lips that he thought that he had always known it deep down: Perhaps it had taken his recent encounter with Nagini to make him realize it. He looked at the serpentine S, inlaid with glittering green stones: It was easy to visualize it as a minuscule snake, curled upon the cold rock. – Meat Trademark Jun 2 '14 at 20:43
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    There's that example, and the example of him opening the door in Chamber of Secrets, which is where the unconscious/conscious use of Parseltongue is a bit ambiguous. Sometimes he doesn't realize he's using it, sometimes he uses it intentionally. But in a situation where it was imperative to be aware of everything going on (Bathilda Bagshot's home), one would think that he would have noticed! But it seems as though at all the times he consciously tried to use Parseltongue, he was forced to imagine a real snake, then it seems as though it became an unconscious act of actually speaking it. – Chris Cirefice Jun 2 '14 at 21:32
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    @MeatTrademark He opened the locket by imagining a real snake, which triggered his speaking Parseltongue, exactly the same as he did in Chamber of Secrets. That seems very much backed up by your quote, too. I don't see how that contradicts my theory when it's explicitly covered in my answer. – Anthony Grist Jun 3 '14 at 8:17
  • Your first sentence is "As far as I recall, he's not capable of consciously controlling his use of Parseltongue." Him actually saying “I’m going to ask it to open, using Parseltongue,” refutes that. To state he's going to do it is an indicator of conscious intent. – Meat Trademark Jun 3 '14 at 9:36
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    @MeatTrademark And the end of that paragraph: "The only time he's demonstrated what might be considered conscious usage of Parseltongue is when trying very hard to imagine an image of a snake as a living creature (e.g. the tap in Moaning Myrtle's bathroom and Slytherin's locket). That's really just tricking whatever controls his subconscious usage of Parseltongue into thinking he's in the presence of a living snake, though." Not to mention that intent and control are not even remotely the same thing; he can intend to do whatever he pleases, that doesn't mean he's actually capable of it. – Anthony Grist Jun 3 '14 at 9:54
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To add; Harry doesn't realise how to control his Parseltongue until the Half-Blood Prince because he doesn't know how and doesn't get much of a chance to as mentioned by Anthony Grist.

In HBP, Harry gets to observe Parseltongue being spoken and has an opportunity to distinguish it from real-tongue, hearing the Gaunts speak it in the The House of Gaunt chapter.

I will attempt to break-down and analyse the process here.

Harry doesn't initially realise that the Gaunts are speaking in Parseltongue:

[Ogden]: “Er — good morning. I’m from the Ministry of Magic —”
[Morphin]:“You’re not welcome.”
“Er — I’m sorry — I don’t understand you,” said Ogden nervously.
Harry thought Ogden was being extremely dim; the stranger was making himself very clear in Harry’s opinion, particularly as he was brandishing a wand in one hand and a short and rather bloody knife in the other.
“You understand him, I’m sure, Harry?” said Dumbledore quietly.
“Yes, of course,” said Harry, slightly nonplussed. “Why can’t Ogden — ?”
But as his eyes found the dead snake on the door again, he suddenly understood.
“He’s speaking Parseltongue?”
“Very good,” said Dumbledore, nodding and smiling.

Harry then realises this and starts to look out for Parseltongue and is able to distinguish it:

Mr. Gaunt spoke out of the corner of his mouth to Morfin.
“Get in the house. Don’t argue.”
This time, ready for it, Harry recognized Parseltongue; even while he could understand what was being said, he distinguished the weird hissing noise that was all Ogden could hear.

This, in my opinion is one of the most important parts in relation to Harry mastering his Parselmouth gift.

So why does he not realise he's being spoken to in Parseltongue? Because he is not ready for it.


[All excerpts are from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Chapter Ten (the House of Gaunt).]

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    Thanks for the addition, I completely forgot about that part in the books! I just re-watched all of the movies and they unfortunately cut out the Gaunt sequence entirely... – Chris Cirefice Jun 10 '14 at 14:21
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I think you are simply taking your own anecdotal evidence and assuming that to be the rule when it's not.

I'm bilingual and definitely had times when I switched languages and didn't notice I did. Both speaking and hearing.

When in stressful situation (Godric's Hollow), Harry probably was more concentrating on the content of what was said, and wasn't paying enough attention to the sounds (which can be confirmed by the fact that he didn't notice that the snake was wearing a human's skin!

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    This applies to native bilingual speakers. Pretty rare for people who adopt a second language late in life. – user16696 Jun 10 '14 at 1:16
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    @cde - Not rare at all. I know many examples. Myself included (I'm not natively bilingual) – DVK-on-Ahch-To Jun 10 '14 at 1:21
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Just because he can control it doesn't mean he always does. If you were faced by somebody you knew was French, you would feasibly start talking in French (assuming you knew the language). And when talking to people in English, you're not consciously aware it's English. You just know that's what they'll understand.

  • While I would say that's true for some people, it's just not for me. I expressed that in my question (which is the primary reason I asked it). I definitely know what language I am speaking (English or French), and when I am speaking each. I've never had a situation where I couldn't distinguish between the two, or was "caught off-guard" by speaking a different language and not realizing. I was looking for a canonical reference to his 'weird usage' of Parseltongue ;) – Chris Cirefice Jun 22 '14 at 7:52
0

I'm native in two languages and I don't always notice when changing from one to another. Even when I hear people talking in another language (that I don't speak), I have to pay attention to understand "oh, it's not English, it's German", for example.

In the same way, Harry might not notice when switching between Parseltongue and English.

  • This doesn't actually answer the original question. Once you have sufficient reputation you will be able to post comments. – Gallifreyan Dec 2 '16 at 16:34
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You guys have already answered the question above. He has to envision or believe he is speaking to a real snake. He makes himself see the faucet as a snake in the chamber of secrets, it says it was easy for him to focus on the serpentine like s and see a miniature snake on the locket and nagini, Bagshot, Was a snake so it was easy. his mind must think its speaking to a snake for him to speak it. He can understand it either way unconsciously though.

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