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The Actual Reasons Why Pirates Have That Distinct ‘Pirate’ Accent

The seafaring criminals known as pirates have existed for thousands of years. But because of the portrayals found in literature - or seen in films, TV shows, or on stage - much of what the general public thinks about pirates is likely historically inaccurate

Take for instance the pirate accent. Many believe the origin of the stereotypical pirate language is Robert Newton's portrayal of the fictional pirate Long John Silver in the 1950 film Treasure Island. Since both Robert Louis Stevenson's character and Newton himself were from the West Country region of England, the actor decided it would make sense to use an exaggerated version of his natural accent in his portrayal. And in the 70-plus years since then, a variation of Newton's accent has been used in many portrayals of pirates.

But while there were real-life pirates who came from England's West Country, there were also ones who came from other parts of the world, including non-English-speaking nations. Not to mention they didn't all come from the same societal class, nor did they all have the same level of education. So it's likely real-life pirates' accents and way of speaking was far broader in scope than the portrayals in literature and the performing arts tend to suggest.

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  • The Stereotypical Pirate Accent Derives From A Single Movie Performance
    Photo: Treasure Island / RKO Radio Pictures

    The Stereotypical Pirate Accent Derives From A Single Movie Performance

    It is a 20th century actor who is credited by many for popularizing the now-stereotypical pirate language. In 1950, the British actor Robert Newton starred as Long John Silver in a film adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson novel Treasure Island

    Newton was born in Shaftesbury, Dorset, England, in 1905. He began his career as an actor at age 16 when he joined the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. Appropriately enough for one who ended up best known for his portrayals of pirates, during World War II, Newton served in the Royal Navy. 

    For his performance of Long John Silver (and subsequent portrayals of other pirates), the actor used an exaggerated version of his natural West Country accent. Which made sense, since in Stevenson's novel, Long John Silver is said to have resided in Bristol, which is located in the West Country.

    Since he passed in 1956, the actor may not have known his performance in Treasure Island was credited for creating the typical "pirate talk" heard in modern media, nor would he know he is the "patron saint" for International "Talk Like a Pirate" Day.

  • The Accent Itself Is Based On An English West Country Accent

    The southwest corner of England, which includes Cornwall, Somerset, Devon, Dorset, and Bristol, is known as the West Country. Because much of the West Country is located on the coast, the area is known for its seafaring activities. For example, items such as tobacco could easily be smuggled through Cornwall

    The West Country accent derives from several different West-Saxon dialects, which evolved into Old English during the Middle Ages. The Saxons moved to the southwest part of England from a region now considered part of northern Germany. Much of the West Country is rural and isolated; because the main industries of the region were farming and fishing, people in the region didn't have to travel to other parts of the country to find work. This in turn meant the way they spoke wasn't greatly affected by outside influences.

    Even today, many people from the West Country will say "I be" rather than "I am." That isn't a grammatical mistake; instead, it reflects how the verb was conjugated in Old English.

    In an interview with the Vancouver Sun, the linguist Molly Babel spoke about the similarities between a real West Country accent and the stereotypical pirate accent:

    Speakers of the [West Country] regional dialect tend to emphasize their r’s, unlike other British regions. They tend to replace the verbs "is" and "are" with "be," and indeed, use the word "arrr" in place of "yes."

  • Like Newton, Blackbeard And Sir Francis Drake Were From The West Country
    Photo: Engraved by Benjamin Cole / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Like Newton, Blackbeard And Sir Francis Drake Were From The West Country

    Numerous real-life pirates and privateers were born in or resided in the West Country, so they likely spoke with an accent similar to the one used by Newton in the 1950 film version of Treasure Island. Two of the most well-known of these men were the pirate Blackbeard and the privateer Sir Francis Drake.

    Born in Devonshire (c. 1540-44), Drake was raised in Plymouth by relatives who worked as privateers. He went to sea for the first time at age 18. He became involved in the slave trade in the late 1560s, then shortly thereafter received a commission as a privateer from Queen Elizabeth I. In 1577 he was one of three men commissioned by the queen to head an expedition around South America. It was a troubled expedition; Drake had one of the other commanders beheaded for treason, and of the five ships that set out on the voyage, Drake's was the only one that made it to the Pacific.

    On the return voyage, he sailed around the Cape of Good Hope, and when he finally landed back in Plymouth in the fall of 1680, he was honored (despite complaints from the Spanish government about Drake's piracy) as the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe; shortly after his return, he was knighted by the queen.

    His last voyage was in January 1596 - an attempt to take control of Spanish possessions in the West Indies. The voyage was a failure and Drake came down with dysentery and fever. He perished off the coast of Puerto Bello (now Portobelo, Panama) in late January and was buried at sea.

    Not a lot about Blackbeard's origins have been confirmed. It is thought his given name was Edward Teach and he may have been born in Bristol (c. 1680). His first known activities as a pirate occurred in 1716; prior to that, it is believed he served as a privateer for the British during the War of Spanish Succession (1711-13). Notorious for his activities along the Virginia and Carolina coasts and in the Caribbean, he eventually established a base in North Carolina. He was slain in 1718 by British naval forces that had been sent by the lieutenant governor of Virginia. 

  • The Real Pirate Accent Would Be Far More Diverse Than An Exaggerated West Country Accent - If They Spoke English At All
    Photo: Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl / Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

    The Real Pirate Accent Would Be Far More Diverse Than An Exaggerated West Country Accent - If They Spoke English At All

    However, while Blackbeard and Drake were from England's West Country, many other real-life pirates were not: Henry Morgan and Bartholomew Roberts both came from Wales, Anne Bonny was Irish, and Captain Kidd was Scottish.

    Those pirates all would have spoken English. But during the "golden age," pirates also came from non-English-speaking places such as the Netherlands, Sweden, France, and the West Indies

    So instead of everyone sounding like Newton's Long John Silver, the way real pirates spoke was far more diverse in terms of the languages and accents used.

  • If Pirate Talk Were Real, It Would Actually Be Far More Complex And Sophisticated Than Standard English

    The language of the real-life pirates who did speak English likely differed from what is considered the standard.

    For example, a pirate might say "ye" rather than "you." In Old English, '"ye" was a second-person plural pronoun that differentiated itself from "thou," the second-person singular pronoun. "Ye" would be used when addressing more than one person, similar to how "y'all" or "you lot" are also used by some as second-person plural pronouns.

    By having a second-person pronoun that is distinct from a second-person singular one, the language used by pirates would be more sophisticated than standard English in that it had to follow a more complex set of grammatical rules.

    Likewise, using "be" in place of "is," "am," or "are" - for example, a pirate might say "he be walking the plank" instead of "he is walking the plank" - also follows a more complex set of grammatical rules than standard English, as the latter doesn't allow for a grammatical distinction between one-off and habitual events, while pirate language would.

  • Some Words We Associate With Being ‘Pirate’ Are Actually Old Sailing Terms
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Some Words We Associate With Being ‘Pirate’ Are Actually Old Sailing Terms

    Some phrases heard in pirate films or found in pirate literature are purely fictional; Robert Louis Stevenson, for example, appears to have come up with terms like  "yo-ho-ho" and "shiver me timbers."

    But as many pirates began their lives on the sea as naval officers or working on merchant ships, it shouldn't be a surprise some words or terms that might be thought of as "pirate language" are actually sailing terms.

    For example:

    Ahoy - Dating from the 18th century, the term was originally meant to direct attention to something such as sighting a ship. It later became known as a way of saying "hello."

    Avast - In use since the 17th century as a command to stop some type of action.

    Grog - Named after Admiral Edward Vernon (AKA "Old Grogram"), who would water down the rum given to his Royal Navy crew. It originally referred to this type of watered-down drink, but eventually came to refer to any sort of alcoholic drink.

    Lubber or Landlubber - Dating from the 14th century, it was used by mariners to refer to anyone not familiar with nautical tasks or life at sea.

    Purchase - In use since the 13th century, this slang term refers to the act of  piracy - or theft in general. It also means the booty taken by pirates.

    Ship's articles - The code by which both mariners and pirates lived by on a specific ship or under the command of a particular captain.

    Talk bilge - Deriving from the filthy water found in the lower part of a ship, it means to "talk nonsense."