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The description for the Kenku race (VGtM, p. 109-111) includes this statement:

You can read and write Common and Auran, but you can speak only by using your Mimicry trait.

In the Kenku origin tale, the description further explains that:

[...] to ensure that the kenku could never divulge any secrets, their master took away their voices.

and

Although unable to speak in their own voices, kenku can perfectly mimic any sound they hear, from a halfling's voice to the noise of rocks clattering down a hillside. However, kenku cannot create new sounds and can communicate only by using sounds they have heard. Most kenku use a combination of overheard phrases and sound effects to convey their ideas and thoughts.

Kenku can't speak except by mimicry.

The Kenku have a voice, but it seems they don't have the ability to vocalize their own words; they have no voice of their own. However, they can form their own words because they can write Common and Auran, so they can form their own words in writing (right?). The Mimicry trait is clearly for speaking only.

As sign language is neither vocalized nor written, I would like to know:

Can a Kenku learn sign language and use it to communicate without mimicry?

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    \$\begingroup\$ @MilesBedinger Can you include that statement in your answer and I'll respond in the comments there? The editors here are rather strict about what goes in the question's comments and they may delete these kinds of comments. (Not dissing the editors, I think they do a great job on this site!) \$\endgroup\$ – lightcat Jan 15 at 6:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ Related GitP discussion: giantitp.com/forums/… \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Jan 15 at 6:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ @V2Blast, thanks, that was a fun read! And I'm curious if the language in Giger's is the same as DNDBeyond and if so is Giger's considered illegal? I mostly use the actual books so I'm not very familiar with the different official web channels. \$\endgroup\$ – lightcat Jan 15 at 6:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ @lightcat: The language in Giger's is indeed identical to the language from Volo's, so yeah, the site's violating copyright in that respect. (Any non-SRD content on other sites - including just the stats and features for the race - is generally in violation of copyright unless the site is an official licensed partner.) \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Jan 15 at 8:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ @V2Blast, Ah, good to know. I don't usually use that site, just found it from a search. That's an important issue to me, so I will stay away. Weird that they are able to do that in plain site. \$\endgroup\$ – lightcat Jan 15 at 8:40
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While Kenku are unable to form voices of their own, there's nothing to stop them from communicating nonverbally. That being said, there's two issues. Part of the Kenku curse is that they lost the creative spark, so any sign language would have to be made for them by someone from another race. Even if a kenku could have a sign language created for them, they'd run into issues that people with real sign language deal with, so some things to consider would be:

  • Having their hands full. It's hard to sign with a weapon in your hands, so there would be no communication in combat.
  • Most people won't know sign language, so anyone who wishes to learn the language would have to spend 250 days learning the language and costing 1 gold per day. Your DM can homebrew how long it takes to learn certain individual words or phrases. You can also work with a fellow player to say you've known each other long enough to teach them the sign language.
  • Sign language is not audible, so anyone not looking at you would not be listening to you.
  • Many spells like Comprehend Languages and Tongues does not help with sign language, as both target spoken languages.

Additionally, it bears repeating that "because their ingenuity and skill had turned toward scheming against their patron, the spark of creativity was torn from their souls." A kenku can learn writing by seeing words, but they cannot create words or write words they've never seen. Their vocabularies, both written and spoken, are done by mimicry and copying.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks. Yes their creativity was taken from them, however it is not clear that this would affect sign language. In the kenku description it states "You can read and write Common and Auran, but you can speak only by using your Mimicry trait." "But" indicates opposition. They can (somehow) read and write as they please, however if they want to speak they can only mimic. How this works can only be chalked up to the magic of dnd. But the question remains: is sign language more like a written language (kenku can sign as they please) or more like a spoken language (kenku can only mimic)? \$\endgroup\$ – lightcat Jan 22 at 7:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ The issue with mimicry isn't really as much of an issue with sign language or writing. All sign language and writing is just mimicry of the person who taught you. The only barrier that the kenku's lack of creativity would have for sign language is the ability to invent new signs. \$\endgroup\$ – Miles Bedinger Jan 23 at 16:25
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There's nothing in the rules specific to this. As such, I believe this can be home brewed to be allowed, should the DM be agreeable. It stands to reason that they have the ability to mimic, so they could in theory learn sign language that way. Additionally, they can be rogues, so they learn thieves cant, which contains hands signals, a sign language of sorts.

But ultimately, it falls on the DM to decide.

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