# Can the tongues spell decipher writing (directly or indirectly)?

The description for tongues states,

This spell grants the creature touched the ability to speak and understand the language of any intelligent creature

It makes no special mention of understanding written languages--just that you can "understand the language". If it doesn't include this ability, though, could, for example, a Dwarf using the spell read aloud a message written by Orcs (since apparently Dwarvish and Orcish use the same writing system, but if that's not how the actual languages in the settings work then replace the example with languages that do work that way), and then listen to and understand their own Orcish?

• Polish and French have the same alphabet but the same letters inthe same order does not sound the same when spoken by speaker of one of the other. – Mołot May 26 '20 at 12:16
• Yeah I couldn't think of any examples of languages (real or fantasy) where a given writing system is pronounced exactly the same in two different languages. I wanted to say, like, "if an English-speaker used the tongues spell after learning the pronunciation rules for and some basic understanding of Spanish, could they read any written Spanish with this method", but 3.5 doesn't have non-fluent speaking... All in all, that's why I just went ahead with the "if that's not how they work, pretend the example is of languages such that they do work that way" note. – 47948201 May 26 '20 at 12:21

## Directly—maybe

So there is a conflict between two rules here. As Matheus’s fine answer covers, tongues itself refers solely to speaking and listening, and any mention of reading and writing is conspicuously absent, compared with, say, comprehend languages which explicitly covers reading.

The conflict I mention, though, is with some much more basic rules:

### Literacy

Any character except a barbarian can read and write all the languages he or she speaks.

(Basics → Races → Races and Languages)

A literate character (anyone but a barbarian who has not spent skill points to become literate) can read and write any language she speaks.

(Skills → Speak Language)

So one could argue that when tongues gives you the ability to speak some language, it also (per this rule) gives you the ability to read and write it—nothing in tongues says it doesn’t do that, which could arguably mean this default rule is still in play. Contrast that with comprehend languages, which explicitly says you understand and can read languages you wouldn’t otherwise know, but cannot speak or write them. Comprehend languages has an explicit exception to the connection between being able to speak, read, and write a language, while tongues just leaves any mention of reading and writing out.

(Obviously, none of this applies if you are a barbarian who somehow cast tongues.)

The counter-argument, of course, is that the first is in the “races and languages” section, and is “obviously” talking about the automatic and bonus languages you learn as part of character creation. The second, equally, is in the section on the Speak Language skill, and so only applies to languages learned that way (though the description—the first bullet—explicitly discusses the state of affairs prior to spending any skill points on the skill). One could even argue that the repetition here is important—that the rule written in one of these places wouldn’t apply to the other so they had to write it in both.

The counter-counter-argument is that if they only meant for those rules to apply to automatic/bonus languages and Speak Language, respectively, why didn’t they just say that? They explicitly—twice—used very general language, and they don’t even make any mention of “knowing” the language—reading and writing explicitly hinges on “speaking” the language, and tongues definitely does that.

All in all, I suspect that tongues probably wasn’t meant to cover written language, but because of how the basic rule was written, it’s impossible to be sure. It is best, then, to ask your DM to make a ruling here. I have played games where tongues covers written language and I have played games where it does not, and I have played in many, many games where it never came up and never would have mattered anyway. (Actually, even in the games where we discussed this up front and rulings were made, I can’t recall it ever actually mattering in game there, either.) Language is rarely an critical part of adventures, and it is a very difficult thing for a DM to add to an adventure in a way that remains fun.

## Indirectly—certainly not

Puzzling out something written in an unknown language is a function of the Decipher Script skill, and that skill gets no bonus for knowing related languages, or for speaking but not reading the language in question, and the tongues spell doesn’t mention it. So if tongues doesn’t help you directly, it also won’t help indirectly.

• The Speak Language skill ("A literate character… can read and write any language she speaks") may be a better (or, at least, alternative) source. – Hey I Can Chan May 26 '20 at 13:47
• @HeyICanChan I like the racial one because it’s in the basics, making it kind of “foundational,” but I’ll add Speak Language as well. It suffers from the same problem, though: it’s a very general statement, but embedded in a particular context (learning a language via automatic/bonus languages, learning a language via skill points) that arguably should limit it. And in fact, one could argue that the repetition of the rule might signify that it needed to be repeated, that the rule under races wouldn’t have otherwise applied to Speak Language. Of course, it could have just been for reference. – KRyan May 26 '20 at 13:50
• I think the Speak Language skill may be foundational as well, albeit perhaps not equally. That is, it, too, goes into what the character can do without having invested any skill points into it, which is kind of the case here. But you do what you do—how any RPG handles languages interests me, so I look forward to further updates to this answer. (I mean, at least we're not discussing the implications of tongue of the sun and the moon, a supernatural ability that literally according to RAW pretty much everybody has.:-)) – Hey I Can Chan May 26 '20 at 13:59
• @HeyICanChan I don’t see Speak Language explicitly discussing what one can do without skill points? The rule quoted here doesn’t reference skill points—not does the racial one reference automatic/bonus languages—but it isn’t truly explicit. Anyway, I am not aware of any other content to consider, so I don’t have any updates for this answer planned? – KRyan May 26 '20 at 14:08
• The Speak Language skill's first bullet: "You start at 1st level knowing one or two languages (based on your race), plus an additional number of languages equal to your starting Intelligence bonus." That and its fourth bullet (as previously stated) says what happens if you ain't got any points in the Speak Language skill. (And I'd started that comment before your last edit; the update to the answer was what earned it my upvote.) – Hey I Can Chan May 26 '20 at 14:21

Well, taking from here the spell description is as follow:

This spell grants the creature touched the ability to speak and understand the language of any intelligent creature, whether it is a racial tongue or a regional dialect. The subject can speak only one language at a time, although it may be able to understand several languages. Tongues does not enable the subject to speak with creatures who don’t speak. The subject can make itself understood as far as its voice carries. This spell does not predispose any creature addressed toward the subject in any way.

I haven't played 3.5, but combining that with the 5e version of the spell, which reads:

This spell grants the creature you touch the ability to understand any spoken language it hears. Moreover, when the target speaks, any creature that knows at least one language and can hear the target understands what it says.

I would say that if someone who understands the language and read it out loud, then someone else with Tongues would be able to understand. For written languages, you have Comprehend Languages

But of course, if you as a DM thinks it's OK to allow a character with Tongues to understand written language, I see no harm in allowing it.

• -1: I haven't played X but... – Please stop being evil May 26 '20 at 17:33
• On the surface, 5e tongues seems to be pretty different from 3.5e tongues. But having this pointed out made me realize that I could also look to older editions to see what was originally intended, so good call! – 47948201 May 28 '20 at 6:52