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Did pirates really say "Arrr"?

On International Talk Like a Pirate Day I was a guest on a local television program here in Maine and, of course, had to give my rendition. Like most people, I started out with an "Arrr!" and added on some "avasts!" and other admonitions to any "scurvy dogs" in the audience. But did the golden age pirates actually speak that way? And where did "pirate talk" come from anyway?

Not surprisingly, pirate talk comes from the movies, specifically the 1950 Disney classic Treasure Island, starring Robert Newton as Long Joihn Silver. Newton's performance -- full of "arrs," "shiver me timbers" and references to "landlubbers" -- not only stole the show, it permanently shaped pop culture's vision of how pirates looked, acted, and spoke. Before Disney's Treasure Island, movie pirates spoke like Erroll Flynn. Afterwards, Newton-esque pirates were everywhere, from Captain Hook to Captain McAllister of The Simpsons series.

But, oddly enough, Newton's pirate talk may not be completely off the mark. Knowing that the Robert Lous Stevenson character hailed from the English West Country, Newton based his pirate talk on the vernacular of that region, where "arr" is an affirmation, not unlike the Canadian "eh," and maritime expressions were a part of everyday speech. He kept the accent for a 1954 sequel, Return to Treasure Island, and for his leading role in Blackbeard the Pirate (1952), which made sense since Blackbeard, like many of the characters in Treasure Island, is believed to have grown up in Bristol.

Newton knew how rural West Country people spoke in the early 20th century; he was one himself. Born in 1905 in Shaftesbury, Dorset -- not far from the presumed birthplaces of Sam Bellamy and Henry Avery -- Newton went to school near Penzance, Cornwall before taking to the stage with the British Repertory Company. While the region's dialect had undoubtedly evolved over the two centuries since the pirate's era, the homogenizing effects of mass media were still in the future. Newton's Blackbeard and the real man may well have had similar accents.

But while many of the pirates and mariners engaged in the American trade had West Country origins, the majority did not. The Flying Gang included large numbers of Scots, Irish, Africans, and French, as well as a smattering of Dutchmen, Swedes, and Danes. Of those of English origin, the largest number were probably from London, then by far the empire's largest port and city. Pirates spoke in many languages and with many accents, but a few of them may well have been in the habit of saying "arrrr."

-- Colin Woodard

(Jump to The Republic of Pirates website)

 

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