In advance of International Talk Like A Pirate Day on Sept. 19, UBC Linguistics Prof. Molly Babel explains why pirates talk that way, or at least why we think they talk that way
Molly Babel is an assistant professor of linguistics at UBC. She studies phonetic variation – her research explores why we speak the way we do, and how listeners perceive and process the different ways we speak.
Why are pirates known for their distinctive dialect?
Stereotypes around style of speech exist for any social group just like stereotypes exist around how we dress or act. Often these stereotypes are based on real features of their speech. Many pirates were recruited in the 17th and 18th centuries from the southwest corner of England, a region called the West Country. The dialect in the West Country has some unique features. One main feature is that they use r’s.
Typically when we think about the English spoken in England, we tend to think of the way a BBC broadcaster pronounces English. In BBC English, you don’t hear a lot of r’s – a word like car is pronounced more like cah. In West Country, they not only had r’s in their dialect, but their word for yes was also arrr. One of the other features of the region was to use ‘be’ as the verb instead of “is” or “are” (e.g., The sun be shining today).
The other thing to remember is that pirates came from all over the world and travelled all over the sea. Essentially they were a group of people who didn’t speak the same language. What evolved was a maritime pidgin, a trade language that was cobbled together to try to understand one another.
Why do we try to emulate pirates?
Pirates represent risk taking and adventure. I think the sense of adventure that comes along with being at sea is what is so interesting to us.
Most of us don’t have real-world knowledge about what pirates did sound like or sound like today. An early movie version of Treasure Island from the 1950s was actually one of the first times where an actor had to portray pirate speech. One interesting fact is that Robert Newton, the actor they hired to play Long John Silver, happened to be from the West Country region. People who live in that area of England still have these speech patterns but like many languages, English is experiencing dialect leveling. Many of the unique dialect features are diminishing, so if one encountered a speaker of West Country English today, we likely wouldn’t mistake them for a pirate.