Where did pirate speech come from?
January 9, 2006 11:12 AM   Subscribe

Where did pirate speech come from?

You know, the kind of stuff you get on talk like a pirate day . Not the argot, or the slang ("shiver my (not "me", that was Wallace Beery) timbers" is Stevenson, apparantly by way of Maryat.), but the intonations, that unmistakable accent, the use of final hard R by Englishmen, "garrr!" and "yarr!" in general. Clearly someone or someones have created a linguistic world here, no mean achievement, but is it organic or artificial? I'm guessing 1930's Hollywood, but it's been a while since I've seen Treasure Island and Captain Blood and I don't recall that they were quite so absurd as they are. (I could be wrong.) Is there any written record of such speech outside of films, preferably predating the twentieth century?

Or do you not think there is a distinctive pirate talk?

Just curious. Thanks in advance.
posted by IndigoJones to Writing & Language (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I think ye'll be wantin' to have a look here. Yarr!
posted by Faint of Butt at 11:16 AM on January 9, 2006


Under the Black Flag is an excellent history of piracy. Cordingly adeptly compares myth to reality, and works with lots of great data. I don't remember that he specifically addresses language, but he gives a great deal of information about the demographics of people who were likely to become pirates. That may partly account for some of what we think of as pirate lingo; a lot of it would be British underworld cant, a lot would be nautical jargon.

But as to the "Aarrr," phenomenon -- I can't pinpoint a moment of generation for that. I hope someone can trace that for us. I'm sure film helped tremdously, but a lot of memes from film were drawing on an earlier life on the stage or in literature. Boys' literature of the late 19th century featured a lot of rough-talking types.
posted by Miko at 11:22 AM on January 9, 2006

Oof, is that ugly. First link was to Amazon; sorry I forgot to format it.
posted by Miko at 11:23 AM on January 9, 2006

Answers.com says it's known as the "West Country" accent, originating in the southwestern part of England.

The West Country dialects, or West Country accents, are generic terms applied to any of several English dialects or accents used by much of the indigenous population of the south western part of England, the area popularly known as the West Country.

The West Country accent is probably most identified in American English as "pirate speech" — cartoon-like "Ooh arr, me 'earties! Sploice the mainbrace!" talk is very similar. This may be a result of the strong seafaring tradition of the West Country, both legal and outlaw. Edward Teach (Blackbeard) was a native of Bristol, and privateer and English hero Francis Drake hailed from Tavistock in Devon.

posted by boomchicka at 11:27 AM on January 9, 2006

As described in the earlier post linked by Faint of Butt, it's basically and exaggerated and modified West Country accent -- why all pirates should hail from that portion of England I'm not sure, though many sailors did come from there; you would have thought that, say, some of the Lancashire accents would have been just as common among pirates given Liverpool's importance as a port.

Writing sailor speech in West Country dialect is not just a pirate phenomenon though as can be seen from things like Drake's Drum. I know Drake himself was a Devon man, but I don't suppose all his sailors were.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 11:43 AM on January 9, 2006

The West Country has a strong tradition of smuggling. Maybe piracy and smuggling aren't a million miles apart?
posted by Leon at 12:10 PM on January 9, 2006

A guess, but part of it may come from the areas in which pirates would have operated - the West Indies and along the west African coast - and how they interact with English ports. A lot of voyages would have started or finished in places like Falmouth or Plymouth, and given that most pirates would have drifted into it from sailing on legitimate ships (whether merchant ships or the Royal Navy), it may be that some influence from English ports has rubbed off. But then again Liverpool was part of the "slave triangle" route too, as Quinbus Flestrin points out, so I'm not sure why there are no Scouse pirates either.

My other guess is that it has been exaggerated by films - if you speak English but are not English, a west country dialect is fairly easy to pull off, and may have had some kind of "salt of the earth" association due to the fact that the area's economy was focused on agriculture, mining, fishing and sailing until the 20th century. Perhaps actors in early pirate films just found it a suitable accent to use.
posted by greycap at 12:35 PM on January 9, 2006

I have a theory that "ahoy" comes from Slovakia, since it means "hello" in Slovak. Never found an answer, though.
posted by acoutu at 12:52 PM on January 9, 2006

I'd guess that big part of the "pirate" accent's prevalence in the past 10 or so years is Captain McAllister (of the Simpsons), who has the West Country thing down to a T, including the "yaar." He's the only recent pirate figure I can think of who talks like that (except for one character in Pirates of the Carribbean, whose voice seems to be at least partly a satire of "pirate talk"), and, it seems to me, the source of my and most of my friends' ideas about the pirate talk.
posted by maxreax at 1:02 PM on January 9, 2006

It's definitely West Country UK that you're hearing in the "pirate accent".

I would say the origins would be more specifically Cornwall, one of the counties of the West Country. Cornwall is a peninsula with a long seafaring and fishing tradition, and some wild weather and rugged coastlines, and it was famous for wreckers, pirates and smugglers.

If you want to know if pirates actually talked like that, I have no idea. It's probably just a cultural cliché, like the eyepatch.

If you want to know why that accent came to be associated with pirates, I suggest some earlier works like "Treasure Island" and "Jamaica Inn" would have been influential.

Disclaimer: I talked like that until I went to university at the age of 18. "Talk Like A Pirate Day" for me is a cinch. I just regress to my childhood.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 1:52 PM on January 9, 2006

But then again Liverpool was part of the "slave triangle" route too, as Quinbus Flestrin points out, so I'm not sure why there are no Scouse pirates either.

The Liverpool accent(s) didn't really take the form we now recognise as 'Scouse' until the mid/late-19th century, specifically after the influx of Irish immigrants. It's an astonishingly localised accent -- as Alexei Sayle once said, it stops halfway down a street in Bootle -- which is a product of that particular melting pot. By comparison, the Bristolian accent (and especially the West Country burr) has a much longer history.
posted by holgate at 2:58 PM on January 9, 2006

Where did pirate speech come from?

Honestly, I think it probably came from Hollywood moreso than any other source. I'm sure there are linguistic roots, but Hollywood has a tendency to take things and run away with them.
posted by frogan at 3:28 PM on January 9, 2006

Presumably you're not talking about this kind of pirate...
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 3:47 PM on January 9, 2006

It's not technically a "West Country" accent, it's an actor's bad imitation of a Cornish accent.

Cornwall was, at one time, a notorious pirate's haven. Think "Pirates of Penzance". Penzance is in Cornwall. When Robert Newton played Long John Silver in the 1950 "Treasure Island" he badly imitated the Cornish accent because of this historicity. Everyone who uses it since that movie, including the Captain in the Simpsons, gets it from Robert Newton.

So what we think of as the "pirate accent" is specifically Robert Newton's poor imitation of a Cornish accent from Disney's version of "Treasure Island".
posted by Justinian at 3:47 PM on January 9, 2006

On preview, frogan is on the right track. It's from Hollywood, but a specific actor in a specific movie as I state above.
posted by Justinian at 3:48 PM on January 9, 2006

He's the only recent pirate figure I can think of who talks like that

Don't forget Captain Feathersword.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 9:34 PM on January 9, 2006

Response by poster: Too many good answers for any Best of prizes, and many thanks to all, both those who went to the crux and those who went on interesting tangents. West Country it is, then, and likely Robert Newton as the conduit from possible historicity to modern consciousness. Now I'm eager to rent the film, for which thank you, Justinian. If correct, and I'm perfectly willing to believe it, then Mr Newton is extremely under appreciated as a cultural marker. Certainly Captain Blood spoke proper English, but then, he was a doctor. Can't recall what the crew sounded like.

Thanks also Miko for (once again) sending me to a valuable source, and Holgate for introducing me to a name I was unfamiliar with but now clearly must investigate.

Best of the web again.
posted by IndigoJones at 4:41 AM on January 10, 2006

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