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In their languages section of stats for some monsters, the wording sometimes says "can't speak" and sometimes says "doesn't speak."

What functional difference is there between these two wordings?

Examples of creatures that use the "doesn't" wording include, Invisible Stalker:

Languages Auran, Understands Common but doesn't speak it.

Or Pidlwick II from Curse of Strahd:

Languages understands Common but doesn't speak and can't read or write


Or, for a more apples to apples comparison (apt, since both the creatures below are plants) :

a Tree Blight:

Languages understands Common and Druidic but doesn't speak

versus a Twig Blight:

Languages Common understands but can’t speak

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    \$\begingroup\$ Is this question a matter of mute or mime? \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jul 17 at 18:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Korvin I can imagine a situation where the spell Command (Speak/Answer/Etc) is cast on either creature. It's not clear if it would work on one and not the other. Or perhaps one implies that vocalizations can be made but language not spoken (eg a Hell Hound that "can't speak" Infernal). \$\endgroup\$ – Rykara Jul 17 at 18:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ Can you find examples of each? Tryssm comes to mind for understands common but can't speak it. What's an example of doesn't speak in a stat block? \$\endgroup\$ – GcL Jul 17 at 18:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Raj: That's a homebrew monster, as indicated by the house icon next to the monster name and the text in the navigation header above it (as well as the page title). \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Jul 17 at 22:54
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Taking a quick look through the Monster Manual, it doesn't look like there's any functional difference.

The "Languages" heading in the Introduction (p. 9) says only:

The languages that a monster can speak are listed in alphabetical order. Sometimes a monster can understand a language but can't speak it, and this is noted in its entry. A "-" indicates that a creature neither speaks nor understands any language.


Now let's look at some examples:

The Invisible Stalker:

Languages Auran, Understands Common but doesn't speak it

The Water Weird:

Languages understands Aquan but doesn't speak

The Hell Hound:

Languages understands Infernal but can't speak it

The Homunculus:

Languages understands the languages of its creator but can't speak

The Giant Owl:

Languages Giant Owl, understands Common, Elvish, and Sylvan but can't speak them


In the case of the Water Weird and the Homunculus, they list languages the monster can understand, but say they don't/can't speak in general, rather than don't/can't speak the language listed.

In the case of the Invisible Stalker and the Giant Owl, they list languages the monster can speak and understand, as well as languages they can understand but specifically don't/can't speak.

In the case of the Hell Hound it list only one language, which it can understand but which it specifically can't speak. Since no other language is listed, it wouldn't be able to speak any other language, either.

Since the rules don't really clarify either way, in my opinion you would be valid in interpreting "doesn't speak" either way, but functionally it shouldn't make a difference unless the monster is being forced to speak somehow (such as via the Suggestion spell), in which case the DM would have to decide how to interpret.

When speaking English in everyday use, "doesn't speak" is often synonymous with "can't speak" when talking about fluency in languages. For example, I can listen to people speaking Italian or read Italian text and understand the meaning, but I can't speak the language myself, so I might use "I can't speak Italian" or "I don't speak Italian" interchangeably. Therefore, I, personally, would interpret "doesn't speak" to be equivalent to "can't speak".

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Good job digging through the monsters to find more examples! I'm not sure I buy the last sentence, though. "He doesn't speak" often (probably even usually) means "he chooses not to speak" not that he is physically incapable of it. The example of the owl is particularly interesting, especially considering a player might use the spell Speak with Animals on it and that spell explicitly says it's a verbal communication (at least on the player's part). \$\endgroup\$ – Rykara Jul 17 at 20:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ For the "doesn't speak it" case, I interpret that to mean like in real life when you can read or understand a language but you're not fluent in speaking, you'd say "I don't speak it" or "I can't speak it" interchangeably. Speak with Animals doesn't say anything about how the verbal communication takes place, so I'd say it's just a case of "magical translation between languages". \$\endgroup\$ – DucksGoMooful Jul 17 at 20:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Rykara We often imply that somebody is choosing not to speak when they are in fact incapable of it - it's a form of polite softening that deflects from the disability. It's so common that the softened version is virtually synonymous. \$\endgroup\$ – Darth Pseudonym Jul 18 at 4:37
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They're essentially identical. We commonly use both phrasings in real life when talking about people. "Sorry, he doesn't speak English" or "Sorry, he can't speak English" are functionally equivalent statements.

If there's any difference at all, it's that creatures that can't speak are incapable of it as a species, while in the examples you gave, one is capable of speaking one language but not another, while the other can't speak, but that's a personal issue and not a function of their species.

But realistically I don't think they mean anything different, it's just different ways to describe the same thing.

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