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The Kenku racial traits in Volo's Guide to Monsters note that Kenku can only speak through Mimicry, though they do understand Common.

Given that the Kenku can mimic the words they hear, combined with the fact that they understand language, can they compile sentences constructed of mimicked words and thus speak a language, like common, fluently? Or are they more like parrots who will repeat what they hear and may even learn to give certain vocal responses to stimuli but never really carry a genuine conversation?


Related to: What typical party roles does this party lack?

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No, a Kenku will never be able to speak fluently

The Kenku were cursed by their previous Master after betraying it. The curse came in three parts (Volos PP 109):

  1. The wings of the Kenku were withered and fell away, leaving them bound to earth.
  2. The spark of creativity was torn from their souls.
  3. Their master took away their voices.

In addition, they can only be Hopeless Plagiarists (Volos PP 110)

Although unable to speak in their own voices, kenku can perfectly mimic any sound they hear...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.

The phrase highlighted above further shows that while a Kenku can read and write Common/Auran, they can only communicate with others via Mimicry, and that mimicry is limited (no passing notes in class!)

On page 111 of Volos, there are further directions for roleplaying a Kenku that describe how you this can be done at the table.

The curse given to them by their Master has negated their ability for fluent speech. Their ability to mimic allows them to communicate, but not fluently. Fluent speech would be a removal of the third part of the curse, which has not, and likely will not occur by simply using their current capabilities.

The pursuit of fluency could join their pursuit of flight as a character/plot hook.

Additional insight from Jeremy Crawford

Jeremy Crawford gave some more insight into Kenku:

friend will be playing a kenku in a one-shot. We discussed how mimicry works. Are they more like a parrot, repeating what they've heard? or can they observe a group for a time and make sentences using said voice? how long can they remember sounds?

A kenku is capable of speech. But that speech is a bizarre mix of syllables, words, and phrases in voices the kenku has heard.

More about kenku: they can cleverly piece together voices and sounds they've heard to communicate. They're not less intelligent than other humanoids, but they do have an unusual form of communication. To simplify roleplaying one, think of two-three voices for the character.

These two insights continue to suggest that the Kenku is speaking by combining an amalgam of previous sound captures. This does not equal fluency, but it is more that the more they hear, the more complex sentences they can construct.

Increased efficiency and ability does not equate with speaking fluently, they are only able to mimic a wider range of information.

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    \$\begingroup\$ @Suthek What would prevent them? The curse. They lack the ability to string together new phrases or sentences. Reading the dictionary doesn't help. \$\endgroup\$ – mattdm Feb 7 '18 at 13:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ So.. they're like Bumblebee in birdman form? \$\endgroup\$ – Paul Feb 7 '18 at 23:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ mattdm - I see no source indicating that they "lack the ability to string together new phrases and sentences." I see no reason, from any of the given sources, that a very clever Kenku could not verbally communicate complex ideas in complete sentences. In the dictionary example given by @Suthek, a Kenku could become a perfectly effective (but by no means inspirational) communicator -- you would just get an effect similar to a synthesized voice, in which the inflection of the words and phrases spoken is wrong and the speech pattern lacks any natural flow, or else is slow and stuttering. \$\endgroup\$ – Brian Lacy Jun 5 '18 at 1:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ @mattdm That doesn't sound right. Note that Suthek said if I were to read to a Kenku every work of the dictionary, that means the Kenku now has heard every word in that language. There's no reason they can't make any sentence now. \$\endgroup\$ – Captain Man Jul 13 '18 at 17:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ @mattdm You are assuming that the sentence they are stringing together always comprises a new idea, but my argument is that's a faulty assumption. A kenku would not be able to compose a poem or tell an original story, as this falls under the purview of their curse; but the key requirement for communicating basic ideas fluently is being intelligently enough to comprehend, recall, and repeat. True, all language requires a certain level of creativity, but then, so does the basic agency of any living, free-thinking creature. Survival as a conscious being requires some creativity. \$\endgroup\$ – Brian Lacy Aug 5 '18 at 14:45
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The Kenku's mimicry is an ancient curse bestowed upon the race. It stems from their lack of creativity, not from a removal of a voice box (they can obviously mimic words they have heard). Even the most intelligent and wise kenku lacks that creative spark. From their entry in Volo's Guide to Monsters, page 109:

[B]ecause their ingenuity and skill had turned toward scheming against their patron, the spark of creativity was torn from their souls.

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

And then (p. 110):

Although unable to speak in their own voices, kenku can perfectly mimic any sound they hear [...] However, kenku cannot create new sounds and can communicate only by using sounds they have heard.

They can mimic any sound they have heard, including speech, and this might even include extracting specific words from phrases they have heard, but they are unable to combine those various sounds into fluent language because they lack the creative spark to do so and thus are limited only to mimicking previously heard phrases, sentences and sounds.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Overall, I agree with this answer except for the final bolded phrase attributing the loss of speech fluency to the lack of creative spark. That's a conjecture not directly supported by the text and isn't necessary so I added another answer that doesn't include it. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Jan 17 '17 at 20:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ Where do you see the "Lack of creative spark to do so" Line? Couldn't "their master took away their voices." Just mean they will never have a 'natural' voice, IE: They can't speak their own voice as they must mimic things like a sort of parot \$\endgroup\$ – Jihelu Jan 18 '17 at 1:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Jihelu It's what I inferred from the entry. The reason they can't speak fluently and can only mimic other noises is related to them lacking any creativity. It doesn't prevent them from mimicking things they've heard, but it does prevent them from communicating directly using language. \$\endgroup\$ – LegendaryDude Jan 18 '17 at 5:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ @LegendaryDude Oh. Just misread a bit. \$\endgroup\$ – Jihelu Jan 18 '17 at 13:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ @r256 then you'd just sound like the announcement system for public transport systems. Understandable, but hardly fluent, let alone inspiring. \$\endgroup\$ – Erik Apr 28 '17 at 6:00
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The way I've played it in the past is, lacking the spark of creativity and a voice of their own, they can mimic speech, but the words must be in a voice they've heard. Even paying a peasant money to read a dictionary produces a speak-and-spell effect, lacking proper intonation. It will sound stilted and out of place, making sound mimicking much more effective.

Hell, for funsies, I imposed another rule: They can only mimic a word the way they first heard it, making it sound really messed up.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ That's how I read the RAW. They can only repeat sounds precisely as they were heard. \$\endgroup\$ – Brian Lacy Jun 5 '18 at 1:00
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I will be playing a Kenku Monk in an upcoming game and spoke with the Dungeon Master about this issue.

We came up with the following:

When introducing himself and dispensing advice, my character will speak in full sentences using correct grammar, word tense, etc in his teacher's voice.

When just chatting, like if the party members chat as we travel, he will speak in broken common ( or Elven or Orcish) mostly in his teacher's voice, adding other voices if needed. This speaking would most likely include not using prepositions or mixing up verb tenses, etc.

Other situations, we will figure out as they come.

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The way I look at it, it would entirely depend on the characters exposure to language, If you have moved around a lot you would have to build from fragments of speech and it would sound really choppy.

If you had spent your life with a very limited group of beings and heard them speaking a lot, you would probably be quite able to sound fluent (though in their voice) until you stepped out of that characters sphere of influence, or were trying to deal with complex idea. Dealing with day to day occurences would be fine.

For example I'm going to playing a orphaned (discarded) Kenku that was brought up in a Antiquities shop, So haggling for price or shop talk would probably be quite fluent (though he would sound like an old man), he also spent a lot of time reading books, so he's going to have a vocabulary of words he has never ever heard spoken, and will have to try to describe them the best he can with phrases, sounds and single words he does know. He was schooled to a certain extent so at times he will probably quote his teachers, when he needs to talk about certain things, like a idea in a book, or a play.

In other words work out where your characters library of sounds comes from and then work from there. Don't try to avoid the disadvantage with things like 'reading a dictionary', but try to use it as a way to express the characters history while imparting information.

Another really nice idea is to say what you are meaning to say but have it addressing someone whose not currently there... So if you think someone is doing something evil you could say "No Master Bumbo, you are a very naughty boy, come back for detention'. Even though there is no Master Bumbo in the area and you are not in school.

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I would just rule it as they dont have a voice of their own but can "Talk" with other people's voices that hey have overheard because if the only way you could play one is with pantomiming and using a sound board they are completely unplayable

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    \$\begingroup\$ Hey Ghastly, welcome to the site! I didn't downvote your answer but I suspect it was downvoted because it doesn't have any support to back it up. That is, you don't mention any sections from the books or any personal experience with Kenku players to back up your reasoning. Additionally, the last line about the alternative being "unplayable" is both subjective and speculative. If you like, you can take the tour or visit the help center to get up to speed with the site's format. \$\endgroup\$ – Adam Jan 19 '17 at 14:37

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