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Although 'The Deathly Hallows' was overall an excellent conclusion to Harry Potter's saga, there were moments within the book that felt infuriatingly lazy, like Rowling was whipping the plot along regardless of the holes she tore in it. For me, the lowest point was when Ron gargles at the entrance of the Chamber of Secrets- and succeeds!- so he can get some Basilisk fangs to destroy a Horcrux (which are conveniently vulnerable to this venom).

This is, by itself, a shockingly slapdash deus ex machina, but even worse is how it is completely inconsistent with the guidelines Rowling herself set. First and foremost, Parseltongue is not just a language, but a magical ability that can only be learned through hereditary or magical means (Potter being the sole example of the latter). This is firmly established by the fact that even Dumbledore, the greatest wizard of all time and a polyglot, is completely unable to speak it despite understanding it perfectly.

Without linguistic knowledge nor inherent ability, the chances of making any kind of coherent sentence (let alone the right one!) would be incredibly slim even in the case of mundane languages; it would be like gibbering at a Filipino in the hope that what you said was fluent Tagalog and didn't insult their mother.

Other baffling issues somewhat related to my question are thus; even if Ron had somehow unlocked the gate, how did he make his way down? In the second novel, Lockheart's foolery demolished the main tunnel to the Chamber, making it impossible to access or leave; the fact that the teeth are still there also implies that the Chamber wasn't excavated and the rubble cleared in the interval. Granted, he could have tried Apparating, but then he wouldn't have needed to fake Parseltongue to begin with.

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    If you'd read Hogwarts, A History you'd know that you can't apparate within Hogwarts. The apparition blocks have to be specifically retracted once a year for the apparition classes. – gowenfawr Feb 6 '15 at 16:26
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    To the point of "where Ron acquired these skills". He did have several older brothers and a younger sister... Of course he could do mimicry. Just sayin'. – user41540 Feb 6 '15 at 16:39
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    Note that Ron was not speaking to an actual snake, but to a sink. This makes me think he would only need to recreate the phonetics of 'open' in parseltongue to trigger the sink opening. This seems plausible, although him actually speaking the language to a snake does not. – sassie Feb 6 '15 at 16:40
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    This is explained in both the book and the movie. In the movie version, he picks it up because "Harry talks in his sleep". In the book version, he picks it up because he hears Harry speaking to Slytherin's Locket. – Robert Feb 6 '15 at 18:03
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    "Ennyn Durin aran Moria. Pedo 'mellon' a minno" – iMerchant Mar 27 '16 at 20:50
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How did Ron open the Chamber of Secrets?

This is explained in the book, although not very well: Ron uses a heretofore-unknown talent for mimicry to exactly duplicate the sounds Harry made earlier in their adventure. From chapter 31, "The Battle of Hogwarts":

"But how did you get in [the Chamber of Secrets]?" [Harry] asked, staring from the [Basilisk] fangs to Ron. "You need to speak Parseltongue!"

"He did!" whispered Hermione. "Show him, Ron!"

Ron made a horrible strangled hissing noise.

"It's what you did to open the locket," he told Harry apologetically. "I had to have a few goes to get it right, but," he shrugged modestly, "we got there in the end."

Where Ron acquired these skills is not discussed, but it's clear that he's not actually speaking the language - he doesn't know what he's saying (although he assumes it's something like "Open"), he's just recreating the sounds.

Note that Ron's "strangled hissing" isn't translated into English, while every other occurrence of Parseltongue in the series has been; the fact that Harry never actually hears Parseltongue when it's spoken is a fairly major plot point in Chamber of Secrets.

This suggests to me that, unlike non-magical languages, there's a difference between Parseltongue's phonemes1 and the language itself; otherwise Harry would have unconsciously translated, and we would have read "'Open up,' Ron said" instead of "Ron made a horrible strangled hissing noise".

It would appear that the entrance to the chamber isn't coded to accept Parseltongue, per se, but rather to accept a spoken password that just happens to correspond to the phrase "Open up" when spoken in Parseltongue.

Wait, what? So you can speak Parseltongue without speaking Parseltongue?

Apparently. Although I agree that this is a bit inconsistent (why is this a hereditary trait if any idiot can learn to speak and understand it?), there is a certain amount of logic to it.

As far as I'm aware, the above quote is the only time Parseltongue is described - every other time we hear it, as previously noted, Harry automatically translates and we read English (or whatever language you're reading in). But Parseltongue gets a much broader treatment in the films, where we actually hear Harry speaking it on several occasions.

The films, or at least Goblet of Fire and Deathly Hallows: Part 1 actually bothered to hire Cambridge linguistics professor, Dr. Francis Nolan, to construct phrases of a real Parseltongue language2, with distinct phonemes3. If we assume that JKR's original Parseltongue also had distinct phonemes (and we have to, because otherwise this scene is impossible), then it's not inconceivable that Ron could have reproduced these phonemes by ear - this is how we learn to speak languages, after all.

So how does Dumbledore know it?

It's established canon that Dumbledore understands Parseltongue - he implies the ability in Half-Blood Prince when taking Harry into the Pensieve to visit the Gaunt family, and JKR confirmed it in a 2007 live-chat on Bloomsbury.com:

J.K. Rowling: Dumbledore understood Mermish, Gobbledegook and Parseltongue. The man was brilliant.

What's not made clear is how he's able to understand it. It could be that there's a magical component to his understanding - he duplicated the innate magical ability of Parselmouths, and he uses that to translate.

It's also possible that he learned how to interpret the language's phonemes. Although possible, this seems to me unlikely largely because of the resources required.

There are basically two ways Dumbledore could have reconstructed the language of Parseltongue. One of those ways is, essentially, code-breaking. But code-breaking when you don't have the key relies partially on complicated statistical techniques, but he'd be trying it out on a completely unfamiliar language - he may be able to determine the most commonly-used phoneme4, but he wouldn't know what that corresponds to in English.

The other way would be to stumble across a phonetic phrasebook, but the odds of such a book existing are slim. Given the already-small population of Parselmouths, how many of them do you think have the linguistic inclination necessary to create a phonetic translation of Parseltongue, let alone the desire to put in writing the secret language of Evil People. In a world where purebloods don't learn mathematics, I'm guessing the number of linguists is zero.

Even if Ron could have opened the Chamber, how did he get down there?

So, in Chamber of Secrets the tunnel to the Chamber is collapsed, and the way back in from the Girl's Lavatory is blocked by what Harry refers to as "a solid wall of broken rock." However, later in the book Harry returns that way with Ginny, and we learn that Ron has not been idle (emphasis mine):

After a few minutes' progress up the dark tunnel, a distant sound of slowly shifting rock reached Harry's ears.

'Ron!' Harry yelled, speeding up. 'Ginny's OK! I've got her!'

He heard Ron give a strangled cheer and they turned the next bend to see his eager face staring through the sizeable gap he had managed to make in the rock fall.

[...]

'But you're okay, Ginny,' said Ron, beaming at her. 'It's over not, it's - where did that bird come from?'

'He's Dumbledore's,' said Harry, squeezing through himself.

--Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets Chapter 17 "The Heir of Slytherin"

The fact that Harry's had to "squeeze" through indicates that the hole Ron made was not very large; it barely accommodated twelve-year-old Harry, described as scrawny and very underweight. It's unlikely that seventeen-year-old Ron and eighteen-year-old Hermione would have had any chance of getting through.

Even assuming the tunnel hadn't been cleared in the five years between this event and the events of Deathly Hallows, the other thing you need to remember is that Hermione and Ron are both much more accomplished at magic at age seventeen/eighteen than Ron alone was at age twelve. Considering all the feats we see her do over the course of the series, I have no doubt that Hermione alone would have been able to safely unblock the tunnel.


1 The basic sounds that make up a spoken language

2 The fact that Dr. Nolan doesn't list this accomplishment on his website shall not be remarked upon

3 There's also a dedicated fan project to expand on Nolan's work, called Stilio. It's a fascinating idea, although pretty dense if (like me) you're not a languages nerd

4 In English, that's /ə/, which in most dialects is a middle "a" sound, as in "comma"

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    Good response, though Ron's sudden genius at mimicry has not only been NEVER foreshadowed (which is what makes it feel like a massive cop-out), it's been proven time and again that Ron is simply not a very gifted student. If he's smart enough to perfectly reproduce a very specific series of guttural and intelligible hisses, where was that skill when he was struggling with spells as basic as 'Wingardium Leviosa' (roll the 'R')? Also, this still doesn't explain why Dumbledore can't speak the language despite decades of study, which he should be able to do if phonetics are half the battle! – Flanneur Feb 6 '15 at 18:06
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    "He doesn't know what he's saying, he just mimics the sounds" - he sounds perfect for government! Oh wait... – corsiKa Feb 6 '15 at 18:49
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    @Flanneur - Mimicry is not intelligence. Think of Ron's (unexpected and unexpectedly useful) talent as being like an idiot savant with perfect pitch. – WhatRoughBeast Feb 6 '15 at 19:32
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    "It would appear that the entrance to the chamber isn't coded to accept Parsletongue, per se, but rather to accept a spoken password that just happens to correspond to the phrase "Open up" when spoken in Parsletongue." - I think this here is the key. The entrance is not a real snake, and was probably designed with a password that merely sounds like "open" in Parseltongue. If Ron had tried the same with a real snake, I doubt the snake would understand him. – Whelt Feb 9 '15 at 20:20
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    The point this answer misses is that a non-parseltongue can't hear a snake speak. They can hear a human speak in parseltongue, and they can even - as Ron did - mimic some of those sounds, at least well enough to fool a magical door lock (we have no evidence whether such mimicry would fool an actual snake); but they can't hold a conversation with a snake any more than they can hold a conversation with a tree. – Martha Jul 31 '15 at 18:16
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In the second novel, Lockheart's foolery demolished the main tunnel to the Chamber, making it impossible to access or leave.

Harry escaped the chamber, so clearly this is not the case.

the fact that the teeth are still there also implies that the Chamber wasn't excavated and the rubble cleared in the interval.

Clearly it was in order to get Harry out, but to excavate a large snake would be a slightly larger task, and why bother, when the Chamber can be closed and kept safe from all but a scarce few? Dumbledore even says as much at the end of the second book - that the Chamber of Secrets has once-again been sealed.

So, simply put, the chamber entrance was in fact excavated enough to retrieve Harry, but then sealed up again with the Basilisk still inside, and notably quite dead and not bothering anyone.

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    Regarding Harry getting out of the chamber, remember that Fawkes has demonstrated the ability to teleport while within Hogwarts, and to take other people with him while teleporting (that's how Dumbledore escapes the Ministry arrest in Order of the Phoenix) – Jason Baker Feb 6 '15 at 19:51
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How Ron can speak Parseltongue without actually speaking it? Well if you think about it as a language, then yes it is very possible. I can say words in German simply because I've heard them said. I don't know what they all mean (without looking them up) and i certainly don't speak or understand the language. So Rons heard Harry say 'open' in Parseltongue enough times to mimic it.

Just because Ron was never described to have mimicing skills doesn't mean he can't do it. It's a skill everybody has from the time your born. Hello, it's how baby's learn to talk and everything else because they mimic what they hear and see. Plus growing up with Fred and George, well their tricks were bound to rub off on him eventually. And even so, it was never said he could mimic well, he even admitted it took several times for him to get it right but eventually he did.

And the wingardium leviosa scene cannot be used to dispute the mimicing theory because he was a stubborn 12 year old upset that a girl was doing better than himself and didn't want to admit he was wrong. He's clearly grown up a lot since then.

Also, the fact that Parseltongue is hereditary is irrelevant when Ron speaks it. Why? Your first langage is hereditary, your second is learned. What you hear your parents speak, that's the language you will [hereditarily (is that a word?)] speak. It doesn't mean you can't learn to speak another. Or in Rons case- mimic.

How did they make their way down into the chamber? Well someone already answered that (forgive me but I'm not scrolling back through to see who exactly said it, I'm sorry). Hermione was there. She is brilliant and super skilled. Im very sure she knew exactly what spell to use to make it through.

As for Dumbledore understanding but not speaking Parseltongue? I'm not exactly sure but it could be one of two things. One being maybe he could understand the gist of what was being said but not the exact definition of each word in order to speak the entire language himself (ex. When reading, if there is a line in french, I can understand the gist of it by the English surrounding it, but absolutely cannot speak french)

Or perhaps he could understand it but was unable to properly pronounce the words (ex. Obviously I know what cinnamon is, but was unable to correctly say it for a long time)

I've also met several spanish speaking people who say they can understand English when being spoken to, but can't speak the language itself very well, which tells me that this scenario is very possible.

I also belive that understanding and speaking are two different things. A 2 year old understands when you tell them to do something but is unable to speak the words youve told them themselves.

Also we know that Dumbledore is very old and had had a lot of experiences in life and doesn't like to talk about himself, especially to Harry. Possibly he did know someone who spoke Parseltongue at one point in time? Who really knows?

And if you want to argue that Voldemort was the last remaining descendant, well, before he was the last, there were others....until they died. The wizarding world seems kinda small, and ive already said Dumbledore was old(over a centry old-look it up), so there is a chance that he once knew another parselmouth descendant. Again....who really knows?

-3

There is a fan theory that says that Ron, and likely most of the Weasleys, are Parselmouths.

This would be convenient in several other ways:

  • Ginny is able to access the Chamber of Secrets. It's possible that anyone could when possessed by Voldemort, but it's not well attested.
  • Charlie is a dragon handler. In fandom, there is widespread speculation that dragons can speak or understand Parseltongue.
  • Bill is a cursebreaker, and we have a huge example of dungeons with Parseltongue-based protections. It would be convenient for his protection if he had the ability.
  • Narratively, Ron knows all about Parseltongue and the bias against it, even though it's a rare ability and he isn't so big on studying.

That's all pretty weak, but it's fun to speculate.

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    Why would dragons be able to speak/understand parseltongue? – ibid Mar 27 '16 at 13:29
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    Pretty sure parseltongue is snakes, not reptiles. Thematically it's tied to Salazar Slyrtherin, who's thing was snakes. – ibid Mar 28 '16 at 23:54
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    "This is a weird ability passed down through the Slytherin blood line." Source. Slytherin's avatar was a snake, not a Dragon. (Not to mention that thoroughout the books parseltounge is described using the word "snakes".) By your logic we can assume that parseltongue works on all animals, as no one attempts to speak it them. – ibid Mar 30 '16 at 13:44
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    Headcanon is fine, as long as one doesn't confuse it with canon. I believe that the OP wanted a canon answer. (This site really isn't built for speculation.) – ibid Mar 31 '16 at 0:56
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    "No other founder left behind them a gigantic statue of themselves or draped the school in emblems of their own personal powers (the snakes carved around the Chamber of Secrets being a reference to Slytherin’s powers as a Parselmouth)." (Pottermore - Chamber of Secrets) – ibid Apr 1 '16 at 19:54

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