But there was a lot more to Parseltongue than you might think. Here are some things you may or may not know about the language of snakes…
Knowing Parseltongue isn’t quite the same as learning Spanish. Firstly, you don’t so much learn it as just innately know it. The language is incredibly rare, as Harry is told countless times. The only place it isn’t rare is within the bloodline of Salazar Slytherin himself – and as such, is usually hereditary.
‘So?’ said Harry. ‘I bet loads of people here can do it.’
‘Oh no they can’t,’ said Ron. ‘It’s not a very common gift. Harry, this is bad.’
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
And thanks to that Slytherin connection, no one is quite a fan of Parseltongue. Harry’s reputation was severely tarnished when his skill becomes known to Hogwarts in Chamber of Secrets, to the extent that they think Harry opened the Chamber.
In Order of the Phoenix, a Rita Skeeter scoop (who else?) tells the whole world he is a Parseltongue, leading Cornelius Fudge, Minister of Magic at the time, to distrust him even further post-return of Voldemort. And as Ron sums up quite efficiently when Harry first uses it, it just sounds ‘creepy’.
Harry was left perplexed when Ron and Hermione managed to break into the Chamber of Secrets during Deathly Hallows. Why? Because you need be able to speak Parseltongue to open it.
As Ron demonstrated, however, sometimes a strong imitation of it is enough for a snake to understand – sort of like when you’re going on holiday and you yell out vague sentences in a French accent from your phrase book.
At least in the case of Harry, Harry found he could only ever speak Parseltongue when he was face to face with a snake, or at the very least, the image of a snake. However, Harry could always understand it, which caused great confusion when there didn’t seem to be any snakes around… such as poor Bathilda Bagshot in Deathly Hallows, where Nagini had used her corpse as a body. Shudder.
During a trip through the Pensieve to learn about Voldemort’s family, the Gaunts, Harry witnesses the family speaking to each other in Parseltongue. Young Morfin Gaunt, who was Voldemort’s uncle, seemed particularly taken with it, and from what Harry saw, seemed to prefer it to English.
Seeing as the Gaunts were so dedicated to their pure-blood line, it makes sense they would isolate others as much as possible by using their own language.
‘Hissy hissy, little snakey, Slither on the floor, You be good to Morfin
Or he’ll nail you to the door.’
Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince
As J.K Rowling revealed, Albus Dumbledore had mastered Parseltongue too – although he could not speak it aloud. We’re not sure why Albus learnt the language, but perhaps the Hogwarts headmaster wanted a better understanding of Voldemort.
Before Harry even knew what Parseltongue was – heck, before he even knew what magic was – he met a rather chatty boa constrictor on a visit to the zoo with the Dursleys. Rest assured, Harry was invited on the trip by accident.
After a brief chinwag about Brazil, Harry’s inadvertent magic released the constrictor from his glass confines. ‘Thanksss, amigo,’ he said as he slithered away; much more polite than the likes of Nagini and the Basilisk.
Harry being an accidental Horcrux meant he was bound to Voldemort in so many ways, just like Voldemort was bound to serpents. Not only could Harry speak the language of the snake, but could see through the eyes of Nagini, another of Voldemort’s Horcruxes, as it turned out.
Once the part of Voldemort’s soul that dwelled inside Harry was destroyed, however, Harry discovered he was no longer a Parselmouth; an added bonus of Voldemort’s demise.