Posted on Friday, September 17, 2010
Category: Etymology, History, Holidays
Man the crow’s-nest, batten what hatches as needs battenin’, an’ settle in with some rum an’ grog in celebration of International Talk Like a Pirate Day.
I could go on like that all day, and once a year, I do! September 19 is a day of walking planks, swilling grog, and general avoidance of scurvy.
In recent years, Captain Jack Sparrow-style lilts have become nearly as prominent as Captain Blackbeard growls, but no matter your patron pirate, it’s a great excuse to bask in a completely alien (and completely awesome) mode of speech.
But Where’s It Hail From, Me Bucko?
Before I started working for a language company, I never really gave much thought to the origins of the archetypal piratical accent. Or is it a dialect? Whatever you call it, it’s certainly got its own consistent linguistic features, from the use of “be” instead of “is” or “are,” to the outrageous prevalence of the “word” arrr, which can start or finish just about any sentence, and for no other reason than that it’s fun to do so.
So where’s it come from? Turns out I’m not the first person to have wondered — Language Log did some digging (presumably underneath a giant X) and generated a few hypotheses. The short answer is that the modern-day pirate speech is mostly based on Robert Newton’s portrayal of Long John Silver in 1950’s “Treasure Island.” But while that’s where most people plundered their impressions from, Newton may very well have based his performance on actual linguistic trends from the world’s busier ports of call.
Shiver Me Timbers, Ye Mean It’s Not Just Made Up?
Probably not! A great many seafaring ne’er-do-wells were based out of southwestern England, an area whose speech was littered with arrrs. There were also quite a few ports there, so the crews of ships were likely to bring this linguistic feature on board and spread it to areas they visited in turn.
With this region as a common origin, the nature of life on a ship almost certainly exaggerated speech patterns. Since crew members would spend weeks and months in each other’s company — without any outside linguistic influence — the language they used would naturally settle into distinct patterns, in much the same way as any accent does on land.
Yarr, Ye’ve Got a Point There, Matey
Of course, it’s highly unlikely that the pirate-speak we use today was all that similar to what was heard on the high seas in piracy’s heyday. Just as Newton’s version of Long John Silver borrowed from (possibly) existing trends, so do we borrow from his borrowing, resulting in a great big game of Telephone. The end product is our current colorful pirate lingo, full of rum and pluck and apostrophes and rum, supported by that tireless arrr.
So even though you may not be speaking quite the same language as Edward Teach (that’s Blackbeard to you landlubbers), International Talk Like a Pirate Day is a great way to celebrate linguistic diversity. After all, when else are you going to be able to get away with rambling about mizzen-masts and calling your boss a bilge rat? Not that I endorse calling your boss a bilge rat — or if you do, be prepared to get keelhauled!