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Many of the threads on this focus on speaking. Other threads focus on understanding/speaking new languages that the Beast knows but the character does not know. I'm not interested in these questions.

My question is: Can a druid, while Wild Shaped, understand language. And if so, which ones?

There are two relevant lines from the PHB:

Your game statistics are replaced by the statistics of the beast, but you retain your alignment, personality, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma scores. You also retain your skill and saving throw proficiencies, in addition to gaining those of the creature. (PHB, Druid Class Section, Wild Shape subsection)

You retain the benefit of any features from your class, race, or other source and can use them if the new form is physically capable of doing so. (PHB, Druid Class Section, Wild Shape subsection)

If language is a "game statistic" - then your language(s) would be "replaced" by the one's in the Beast's stat block. Language is in every Beast's stat block, so you would lose all languages except those in the Beast's stat block. I'm not sure I agree with this, but it's one interpretation.

The above interpretation conflicts with the second line: You retain the benefit from your class/race/etc (which includes languages).

Although, perhaps "physically capable" means that you wouldn't understand language unless the Beast could. Speaking from common sense and my basic understanding of biology, my brain is what makes me physically capable of understanding language. Without that, I couldn't understand anything. Some animals have more sophisticated brains than others. Some can partially understand language (dogs, maybe), others: not at all. The difference lies in their circuitry, their brain complexity and capacity, is different. This is a physical difference. A physical capability, you might say. Interpreting the second line this way resolves any conflict between the two lines: You only understand the Beast's language proficiencies, and you don't retain other languages because the Beast is not physically capable of doing so. However, if the Beast is physically capable of understanding some languages, then it must be physically capable of learning others (to some degree). Therefore, it's not a physical capability.

Conclusion: Those interpretations must be wrong. Okay, so let's look at alternatives.

  1. Language is a "Skill Proficiency" and is therefore retained, as per the first line of rules above. I don't like this. Language is never coupled with Skill in the PHB. There are "Language Proficiencies" and "Skill Proficiencies." They are not the same.
  2. Your intelligence is the source of your language understanding, and since you keep your Intelligence stat, you should keep your languages. Not true, at least not in 5e. Low intelligence might make you worse at speaking, but we're not talking about speaking.
  3. ???

I think perhaps the rules don't actually address it, so it's left to DM discretion, yes?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ But where are my manners? Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already and see the help center or ask us here in the comments (use @ to ping someone) if you need more guidance. Good Luck and Happy Gaming! \$\endgroup\$
    – Someone_Evil
    Jun 26 at 18:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Someone_Evil I've seen that post, it does not fully address the question here. If you interpret language as coming from Skill Proficiency, then it does answer this question. However, that is not what the answers to that post say. Therefore, my question is not a dupe. They are related, I'll give you that. Answering one may answer the other. But it depends on interpretation. This question has fertile ground unanswered by the other question. \$\endgroup\$
    – Matt W
    Jun 26 at 18:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ Ah, I see. I'll leave it as merely related then: Is language tied to statistics, ability scores, and/or skill proficiencies according to the rules? \$\endgroup\$
    – Someone_Evil
    Jun 26 at 18:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ I don't think the brain argument is applicable. Though the rules about souls are vague, some of the things a soul can do (magic jar spell, ring of mind shielding) imply thinking and understanding don't require a brain. \$\endgroup\$
    – aschepler
    Jun 27 at 17:07

1 Answer 1

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Yes, you can understand language if the form can hear

The relevant rules text is:

You retain the benefit of any features from your class, race, or other source and can use them if the new form is physically capable of doing so.

The languages you speak are features from your race, class or backgound. You retain their benefits, if the form you chose is physically able to hear language. You also retain your mind (Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma), so you can understand what you hear. You would understand the same language your character understands if not in Wild Shape.

For example, a feature of being a gnome is the languages trait (p. 37 PHB):

Languages. You can speak, read, and write Common and Gnomish.

You cannot speak, because Wild Shape says:

You can’t cast spells, and your ability to speak or take any action that requires hands is limited to the capabilities of your beast form

and beast forms typically lack the biological apparatus to form speech, and you likely cannot write without hands (but you might be able to form letters moving stones around on the ground or such).

This subject also has been explicitly addressed in the Sage Advice Compendium:

Can a Circle of the Moon druid speak the languages it knows while in the form of an elemental? Yes, since the elementals listed in Elemental Wild Shape can speak. A literal interpretation (RAW) of Wild Shape could reasonably lead you to think that transformed druids can speak only languages that appear in an elemental’s stat block, but the intent (RAI) is that druids retain their knowledge, including of languages, when they transform and can speak the languages they know if an adopted form can speak.

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    \$\begingroup\$ @MattW there is no such support and I think the OP is using the word colloquially. However, it’s irrelevant “you retain the benefit of any features of your … race” - understanding languages is a feature of your race. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dale M
    Jun 26 at 23:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MattW, I think the issue is you are thinking about this as a physics/biology simulation here. It isn’t. Animals can hear, that’s all that is needed. The rest is covered by the statement that benefits are retained. DaleM ist right about the mind part. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 27 at 3:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MattW You keep you intelligence, which is your ability to reason and recall. Language is basically recalling vocabulary and reasoning about sentence structure. All the brain capacity and circuitry are basically rolled up into intelligence in D&D. \$\endgroup\$
    – yesennes
    Jun 27 at 20:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MattW, great find, thank you for sharing it! I’ll add that to the answer as comments are somewhat ephemereal \$\endgroup\$ Jun 28 at 2:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ Probably not all that helpful, however, there are at least 3 animals which are deaf or nearly deaf which would not be able to understand speech purely because of physical limitations. They are: Cephalopods, Naked Mole Rats, and Armadillos \$\endgroup\$ Jun 28 at 14:51

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