Illustrations by Sveta Sobolev
“19 years later.” While this might be a phrase in just about any book, die-hard Harry Potter fans will know that it’s also the title of the epilogue in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. And guess what? 19 years later is now. What, already? Wow, time flies like a Firebolt! Since we love languages and we love Harry Potter, and a little geeky trivia can never hurt, we’re taking the end of the saga as an occasion to look more closely at the languages in the Harry Potter universe.
In contrast to Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings or the TV-show Game of Thrones, the fictional languages in the Harry Potter universe are not fully fleshed out, but their mention still gives us a glimpse into a magical multicultural society. This society doesn’t only include humans and their languages, but also the languages that are spoken by various magical Beasts and Beings. We’ll only be concentrating on the latter in this article. (But if you want to land a stunning Veela like Fleur Delacour, you can start learning French now!)
So let’s have a look!
Most prominent native speaker: Grawp (Hagrid’s half brother)
Example: Gurg, meaning “chief”
Although it is never explicitly mentioned, we know that the Giants must have their own language because Hagrid is faced with a language barrier when he tries to forge an alliance between the Giants and the Order of the Phoenix in the war against Lord Voldemort.
Hagrid, a half Giant, doesn’t know the Giant language (we don’t know if this is because he wasn’t raised by his mother or if those who aren’t fully Giant are not able to speak the language), but some of the Giants do know rudimentary English. Hagrid is also semi-successful teaching his half-brother (and full Giant) Grawp some English.
“Over the murmur of the river he could make out more voices, but they were not speaking English or any human language he had ever heard. It was a rough and unmelodious tongue, a string of rattling, guttural noises […]” – Harry overhearing two Goblins speaking Gobbledegook
Most prominent native speakers: The Goblins at the Gringotts Wizarding Bank
Example: Bladvak, meaning “pickaxe” (according to Ludo Bagman who only knows one word in Gobbledegook)
Gobbledegook is the native language of Goblins. It is described as a “rough and unmelodious tongue, a string of rattling, guttural noises.”
Despite Gobbledegook sounding very different from any human language, humans are able to learn it: Barty Crouch Senior can speak it (he’s Percy Weasley’s boss at the Ministry of Magic in The Goblet of Fire, who is later killed by his son Barty Crouch Junior, a.k.a. fake Mad Eye Moody) — but probably only thanks to his amazing talent for languages: Mr. Crouch Senior can speak over two hundred languages, including Mermish, Gobbledegook and Troll.
Goblins, on the other hand, put a lot more effort into learning human tongues: All the Goblins we meet speak accent-free English. Gobbledegook also has a written form, as it was one of the 72 languages that Miranda Goshawk’s Book of Spells was published in.
Most prominent native speakers: The Merpeople in the Hogwarts lake
Mermish is the native language of the Merpeople (also known as Sirens, Selkies or Merrows). This language is specifically adapted for use underwater, where it sounds like English to Harry’s ears. Out of water, the language changes to a screeching, harsh and raspy sound (we hear that sound whenever Harry opens his golden egg above water in The Goblet of Fire).
Non-Merpeople can learn the language (Albus Dumbledore was a known non-Merperson speaker), but we learn from the textbook Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them that Merpeople are unable to converse in anything except Mermish while above water.
Miranda Goshawk’s Book of Spells was also published in Mermish, which tells us that the language has a written form.
Most prominent native speakers: Salazar Slytherin, the Gaunt family, Lord Voldemort
Etymology: J. K. Rowling has stated in an interview in 2003 that she took the name Parselmouth from an “old word for someone who has a problem with the mouth, like a hare lip.”
Parseltongue is the language of snakes and other magical serpentine creatures, like the Basilisk or Horned Serpent. The language is described in the books as a hissing sound, similar to that of a snake. The language in the movies, created by professor of phonetics Francis Nolan sounds a bit different from this. While it has a lot of sibilants (sounds like [s],[z], or [sh]) producing a hiss-like noise, there are also some sounds (like vowels) which are more human.
Humans who can speak Parseltongue are known as Parselmouths. The skill is hereditary and nearly all known Parselmouths are descended from Salazar Slytherin, the founder of Slytherin house. Harry Potter is the exception to the rule, since he developed the ability to speak to snakes after birth. This happened when Lord Voldemort tried to kill Harry, accidentally leaving a piece of his soul inside him and thereby passing on the Parseltongue gene. J.K. Rowling revealed in an interview in 2007 that after Lord Voldemort destroyed the fragment of his soul residing in Harry, Harry lost his ability to speak to snakes. (Cough Plot hole in The Cursed Child cough!) While those less fluent in Parselmouth need to be facing a snake-based creature or an object shaped like a snake in order to speak it, more proficient speakers — like the Gaunt family — can do so without the presence of snakes. It’s also possible to imitate the language convincingly: In Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows, Ron managed to speak Parseltongue well enough to re-open the Chamber of Secrets so that he and Hermione could fetch basilisk fangs to destroy a Horcrux.
“Anyone can speak Troll. All you have to do is point and grunt.” – Fred Weasley in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Most prominent native speaker: The Mountain Troll who breaks into Hogwarts in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
Fred Weasley’s belief that Troll is a primitive language is confirmed in the textbook Fantastic Beasts and where to Find Them: “Trolls generally converse in grunts that appear to constitute a crude language, though some have been known to understand and even speak a few simple human words.” We’re not sure who’d be crazy enough to teach them, though!
Bonus: Magical Beasts and Beings Who Speak English (and Other Human Languages)
- Acromantulas, the giant spiders that Hagrid is so fond of, have near human intelligence and are able to speak. You probably still don’t want to stop for a chat, you know… because they might eat you alive.
- Centaurs like the ones who live in the Forbidden Forest are capable of human speech. We wonder if they also speak Horse… or is it Horsish… Horsenian?
- Dwarfs are short, humanoid creatures. In Harry’s second year at Hogwarts, Gilderoy Lockhart hires Dwarves to dress up as cupids and deliver singing Valentine’s messages around the school — in English!
- In contrast to what Muggles think, Fairies cannot speak a human tongue!
- Gnomes are a common garden pest found throughout northern Europe and North America. They are about a foot in height, with a disproportionately large head and bony feet. The Weasley family have some in their Garden, and they definitely swear in English!
- All the House Elves we meet speak English, some with grammatical “errors” which are so easy to adapt to that they remind us of creole languages. So House Elves probably have their own language, or even multiple languages. They do have their own magic, after all!
- Here’s how Jarveys are described in the textbook Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them: “It resembles an overgrown ferret in most respects, except for the fact that it can talk. True conversation, however, is beyond the wit of the Jarvey, which tends to confine itself to short (and often rude) phrases in an almost constant stream.”
- Leprechauns can also speak English, and since they live in Ireland, maybe they also know Irish Gaelic. We don’t know if they have their own language.
- Manticores are described in the text book Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them as “a highly dangerous Greek beast with the head of a man, the body of a lion and the tail of a scorpion.” They are capable of intelligent speech.
- A Sphinx, like the one Harry meets in the maze in the third Triwizard task, is capable of human speech, but will only talk in puzzles or riddles.
- Veela are part-human and have been known to marry Wizards (Fleur Delacours’s grandmother was a Veela), so we’re pretty confident that they are capable of human speech!
If you could speak any language, magical or human, which one would it be?