I am very disappointed.
International Talk Like a Pirate Day which falls in September each year is one of my favourite annual observances. However, last week National Geographic magazine cast doubt on the sort of meaningful exchanges that mark the day. In an article titled, . .”Forget ‘walking the plank.’ Pirate portrayals—from Blackbeard to Captain Kidd—are more fantasy than fact“, National Geographic presents persuasive arguments to challenge our perceptions of pirates.
However, there is one section of the article with which I take issue. Under the heading, ‘Pirate talk’, the article says,
Common pirate phrases—such as Arrrrr me mateys!” and “Shiver me timbers!”—are common in pirate movies and pop culture. But they’re not legitimate things a pirate would actually have said. Robert Louis Stevenson imagined some of them for his 1883 novel Treasure Island, published more than 150 years after the “golden age” of piracy.
The trope of talking like a pirate is mostly a product of 20th-century Hollywood. In particular, British actor Robert Newton, who played both Blackbeard and Long John Silver. His portrayal of the fictional captain in the 1950s rendition of Treasure Island used an exaggeration of his own West Country accent and would define the sound of a pirate’s accent. His portrayal also popularised many of the sayings associated with pirates today. In reality, pirates most probably spoke in a manner similar to all sailors of the time.
So Robert Newton used a West Country accent in presenting John Silver. But wouldn’t that because many of the sailors of John Silver’s time would have had West Country accents?
National Geographic suggests that pirates spoke in a manner similar to all of the sailors. Many, perhaps, most of those the sailors who sailed the Carribean sailed out of Bristol, a city with one of the most distinctive of accents.
Whatever the verdict on pirate talk, I shall continue to like International Talk Like a Pirate Day.
Partly it is because coming from Somerset, talking like a fictional pirate isn’t hard. Our dialect lengthens the letter ‘r’ and the verb ‘to be’ gets rendered: I be, you be, he be, and so on. I grew up familiar with baint as the local word for I am not – I assume it came from I be not. In Somerset you could sound like pirates while talking with your neighbour about the weather.
Partly, I like International Talk Like a Pirate Day because it is a parody of the self-importance of the proponents of many other days, just as the character of Captain Jack Sparrow is a an effective antidote to pompousity.