Introduced in Volo's Guide to Monsters, Kenku can only speak by imitating sounds they've heard — they're unable to speak with their own voices (p. 110):

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

What does it sound like when talking with a kenku?

Does the quote above mean that each mimicked piece of speech they use sound exactly as they heard it, including the original speaker's voice? Do they only use entire whole phrases they've heard, or do they piece together sentences from different sounds they've heard in different phrases? If the latter, is each word going to be using a different voice?

Related: Is it possible for a Kenku to speak a language fluently through mimicry?


7 Answers 7


The fun way to do this, as well as the obvious interpretation of the rules, would be to have them imitate phrases perfectly, sounding like the original speaker, but using them in approximately the sense they originally heard them. So their voices can change completely from sentence to sentence - one being a dwarf they heard speaking yesterday, the next sentence being a small elf child they heard ten years ago, and the third being something you said to them three months ago.

They understand what phrases and sentences mean, but if they can't break down phrases into words and use the words individually, they're still fairly limited by their curse. They would sound a bit like Dilbert's pointy-haired boss, who tends to come out with phrases and clichés that belong in a subtly different conversation.

This would be an interesting challenge for a player who was usually verbally adroit. Precedents for even more extreme versions exist in the Librarian from Terry Pratchett's Discworld series who manages to get by with just one word, "Oook", and Mr Punch in the classic Punch & Judy show, most of whose lines are "That's the way to do it!"

The main problem with playing a Kenku this way would be avoiding humour in serious moments of the game.

  • 7
    \$\begingroup\$ It wasn't all that funny when the Predator did it... \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Jan 18, 2017 at 17:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ Don't forget Groot's range of expression using only a single phrase... \$\endgroup\$
    – G0BLiN
    Jan 19, 2017 at 16:32

Chris Perkins talked about this on Twitter a while back, and I like his approach (I'm still looking for the Tweet). The gist is that between sounds, captured phrases and gestures. He goes on to say that the player who actually makes the noises would likely not survive the night as the other players would likely drag him out back... So, he presented something like:

My character clicks the sound of coins rubbing together and then makes a tearing sound as looks at his empty hand first, and then the one holding a dagger and makes a gesture of drawing the dagger across his throat.


Given that a Kenku can understand languages but cannot produce new sounds there would be a lot of oddities with their speech, it would almost be as though they are communicating with a tape recorder. A normal speaker can alter their pitch and volume to make their sentences flow where a Kenku could not. A Kenku's speech might vary unexpectedly in pitch and volume from word to word due to piecing together a lifetime of hearing words different ways. Unable to alter pitch, their sentences would lack proper emotion and emphasis. Unable to alter volume, a Kenku would not be able to whisper or yell their exact thought either.

The related question's answers mention the "spark of creativity." A term which I find very subjective. Though if they do in fact lack creativity, this would mean their speech would be very plain and literal, not using metaphors, similes, idioms, etc... The lack of creativity might also mean they just simply prefer to say phrases in the exact tone and volume exactly as they heard them, but I would not rule out them talking in their own extremely odd way if necessary.

  • \$\begingroup\$ The rest of this is quite good. Thanks for revising it! \$\endgroup\$ Jan 17, 2017 at 21:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ This makes me think of how Bumblebee talks through most (all?) of the Michael Bay Transformers movies. He's capturing bits and pieces from the radio and replaying them. The Kenku would do the same, but from the different things they've heard. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 13, 2017 at 18:25

Waterdeep: Dragon Heist (page 25) possible spoilers:

What the Kenku Know

When kenku speak, they mimic sounds and voices they have heard before. Under interrogation, they repeat the following phrases:

  • In a deep voice with an orcish accent: "Xanathar sends its regards."
  • In a thin, nasally voice: "Tie up the pretty boy in the back room!" and "Follow the yellow signs in the sewers."
  • In a scratchy voice: "No time to loot the place. Just get him to the boss."

At least in this module, kenku are sort of like parrots - they can repeat what they've heard, as they heard it. They do not seem to be able to piece together new sentences from fragments of others.


Description is the way to go. For some reason I can't get Bumblebee from the Transformers movies out of my head. that's what I picture a kenku speaking like.

trying to actually do it in character? nah. I'd be driven nuts just trying to do it. the other players would kill be before an hour had passed.


I’m going to challenge the frame: It can’t be done.

This is an impossible form of communication. In fact, if we take the concept described in Volo’s as suggested, then communication itself is beyond kenkus’ ability. Without the ability to understand language and string words and sentences together into unique ideas, kenkus lack the ability to communicate anything more than a tape recorder could, and in fact have extremely limited ability to think about things with much depth. Which would be consistent with the statement that they lack any creativity whatsoever.

But that’s not a playable character. At best, it’s a weird animal-intelligence-level monster to interact with. Which, since the kenkus are intended to be playable, is a big problem.

So I am going to just call out Volo’s as being poorly thought through, and recommend to all and sundry that they ignore it. In previous editions, kenkus had the mimicry ability, but without the dire and complete prohibition on creativity. This was typically understood as being “perfect,” so it sounds the same as the kenku originally heard it. Which is perfectly reasonable, and actually workable.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm not following this turn of the reasoning: "Without the ability to understand language"; they understand Common at least, right? \$\endgroup\$ Jan 17, 2017 at 23:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie If the source is to be believed, their inability to speak isn’t a speech impediment, it is a failure of their brain to be able to come up with new ideas. At which point, I’m not even sure what “understand” is supposed to mean. Basically my point is that all of this poorly-considered garbage that should just get thrown out. It’s neither interesting nor useful. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Jan 18, 2017 at 0:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ This answer is similar to my answer at the table: leave Kenku in the book, it's a lousy idea to play a creature that can't communicate verbally in a game that relies heavily on verbal communication. Might work well in a novel or a comic book. This attempt at an at-table implementation is a mess. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 20, 2018 at 21:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast Oh, I’d use them—I like me some raven-people. I just ignore the “incapable of original thought” nonsense. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Apr 20, 2018 at 21:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KRyan Right, it's the "as presented in the book" that kills it for me, and they (to me) aren't worth the trouble to home brew. For others, could be a perfect fit. (Different strokes and all that ...) \$\endgroup\$ Apr 20, 2018 at 21:54

Chukka and Klonk

Chukka and Klonk are two kenku who work for the night hag Mad Maggie in Baldur's Gate: Descent into Avernus. When the party first meets them, they are described thusly:

A pair of kenku examine one of the strange vehicles, chattering to each other in high-pitched squawks. These kenku carry an assortment of strange tools. When they see you, they turn and stare in wonder.

In context, the pair are repairing an infernal machine, and are likely discussing with one another what might be wrong and what they should do about it. This appears to contradict Volo's statement that they are unable to speak in their own voices. It might be reconciled by saying that their "chattering in high-pitched squawks" is more akin to birdsong, where they are producing sounds with emotive content, not true words, and perhaps the sounds are repeated exactly between the two of them - they do not have their own voice.

Later we are told,

One of the kenku waves in your direction as if telling you to remain where you are. "What a deal! Patience is a virtue! Can't keep the boss waiting!" He runs off into one of the trash structures.

It is easy to imagine that he is using phrases he heard other members of Maggie's gang utter at some point. Further, Maggie collectively calls the two kenku "The Magpies". This reaffirms Volo's assertion that they do not speak in their own voices, but rather mimic other sounds.


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