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The "pirate speech" we hear/see/read, for example, on the website Talk Like A Pirate Day consists of a rhotic dialect characterized by phrases like "shiver me timbers," "ooh arh me hearties," and so on and so on.

What is its basis in fact?

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I wish I could upvote this question a million times. –  JSBձոգչ Aug 18 '10 at 4:37
    
A discussion in The Guardian is Arrrr all film pirates really from Bristol?. (In passing, this site is a treasure trove(!) of semantic conundrums notes and queries.) –  cindi Aug 18 '10 at 7:47
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Cross-linking: Did pirates really talk the way they are currently portrayed? (Skeptics.SE). Edit (comment cleanup): note the dates. The question on Skeptics is two days old. This one here was asked 8½ months ago, half a year before Skeptics was even created. –  RegDwigнt May 1 '11 at 17:27
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"I'm Guybrush Threepwood, mighty pirate! Arrr." -Monkey Island :p –  Garet Claborn May 6 '11 at 14:40
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How can you tell that a C program has been pirated? When the parameters to main() are "arrrgggc" and "arrrgggv". –  Jay Dec 6 '11 at 18:23

8 Answers 8

There really isn't much of a basis in fact at all, but it has some non-fiction roots.

"Nearly all of our notions of their behavior come from the golden age of fictional piracy, which reached its zenith in 1881 with the appearance of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island." - Adams, C. "The Straight Dope", October 12, 2007 The Straight Dope – Fighting Ignorance Since 1973

So, According to Wikipedia, and several other sources. Our notions of pirates, and their dialects, is just a result of popularized fiction. Such as novels and movies like The Pirates of The Caribbean, Sinbad The Sailor, and Treasure Island.

-EDIT-

"So, was there a typical pirate accent at all? Among British outlaws, yes: The onboard speech was most likely underclass British sailor with extra curse words, augmented with a polyglot slang of French, Italian, Spanish, and Dutch picked up around the trade routes." -Christopher Bonanos

From: Slate

Summary: "Arrrg" is mainly fiction, but the accent could very well be a product of underclass European slang, and other languages picked up from around the world on trade routes.

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I edited this post quite a bit, but in the end, I think I supplied a pretty in depth answer. –  MikeVaughan May 2 '11 at 18:32
    
I wish I could make this the 'accpeted answer'. –  MikeVaughan Jan 17 '12 at 5:48
    
Indeed, underclass English is heavily rhotic. –  AndrewS Apr 27 '12 at 19:05

A few answers here give good sources for various words that are commonly used when 'talking like a pirate'.

It may surprise some of you to learn though, that the 'accent' that most people go with (Rolled 'R's, dropped 'h's, gruff voice, etc.) actually originates from Robert Newton, the actor who played Long John Silver in the first sound production of Treasure Island.

So unfortunately, not a real pirate.

Sources: UK TV show, QI, which is rarely ever wrong and then follow up research that revealed Robert Newton as the 'Patron Saint' of Talk Like a Pirate Day for said reason.

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This hits the nail on the head. All you have to do is watch the opening seconds of Treasure Island to hear the modern origin of how pirates supposedly talk. It doesn't matter where Newton got the idea for the accent--the fact is he made his interpretation compellingly memorable. –  Bill Lefurgy May 23 '12 at 20:24
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It's supposed to be a Bristol accent. Which leads to the joke: Q -Why do people from Bristol sound like pirates? A- because they aaaaarrrrrrr! –  Wudang Jul 10 '12 at 12:09

In my experience, it seems that the dialect largely comes from two things

  • Pirates are generally drunken sailors which gives birth to the 'Tavern Slur' style of speech
  • Pirate songs!

Here's an excerpt from Lighthouse Journal

Music was, apparently, an important part of morale aboard any ship – pirate or otherwise. Often there would be a musician member aboard and tavern songs were popular with seamen in general, the concertina (‘squeeze box’) being the most popular on-board instrument. These songs, called chants or ‘Sea Shanty’, became part of the pirate lore. There were songs or sea shanties like:

  • Capstan Shanty or Windlass Shanty – song to sing while raising the anchor of a ship.
  • Short Drag Shanty – song sung while raising the masthead or trimming the sails.
  • Halyard Shanty – song sung while raising the heavy sails from the yards, the wooden cross-pieces.
  • Pumping Shanty – sung while pumping out the water when emptying the bilge.
  • Forecastle Shanty – sung in the quarters of the crew members, the forecastle (fo’ksul) is the forward part of the main deck.
  • Celebration Shanty – sung to celebrate anything worth celebrating, such as battle victories. The most known song is a tavern song called Blow the Man Down.

That last example's famous line, "Yo ho and blow the man down!" is a fairly good example.

Here are some others:

Here's to the grog, boys, the jolly, jolly grog
Here's to the rum and tobacco
I've a-spent all my tin with the lassies drinking gin
And to cross the briny ocean I must wander
  - from Here's to the Grog

To my, Ay, And we'll furl, Ay, And pay Paddy Doyle for his boots.
We'll sing, Ay, And we'll heave, Ay, And we'll hang Paddy Doyle for his boots.
  - from Patty Doyle

But now th' month is up, ol' turk. An' we say so, an' we hope so! Get up, ye swine, an' look for work. Oh! Poor old Man! Get up, ye swine, an' look for graft. An' we say so, an' we hope so! While we lays on an' yanks ye aft. Oh! Poor old Man!
  - from Dead Horse

Did roar, did roar, the crimps at me did roar.
There I went, me head all bent and the crimps at me did roar.
The first chap I ran afoul of was Mr. Shanghai Brown.
Well I asked him neat if he'd stand the treat; he looks me up and down.
He said "The last time yer was paid off you chalked me up no score.
But I'll give yes a chance and I'll take yer advance, and send yer to sea once more."
  - from Shanghai Brown

All in all I think the modern usage comes from a combination of songs like these, lots of drinking and the general usage of English and naval terms in the pirating age. Aye matey.

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I'm not sure, but the answer is probably in this book, the Pirate Primer, which uses real pirates, movies, literature, etc as sources.

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OK, well it's a step in the right direction. –  delete Aug 18 '10 at 3:12

Pirates portrayed in popular culture generally have an accent from the South West of England - usually Cornwall, Devon or Bristol according to Wikipedia. Karl's answer, that this originated with Robert Newton, is probably true, but why would Newton choose a Westcountry accent?

Pirates traditionally operated in the "new world" of the Caribbean and eastern coasts of the American continents, and as such English pirates would typically operate out of the western side of England. The biggest ports on that side of England are Bristol and Liverpool; Bristol is closer to London, where no doubt the pirates would want to sell their plunder, and it's also further south than Liverpool, thus marginally closer to the Caribbean.

Perhaps more telling though is the terrain of the South West Peninsula. Cornwall and parts of southern Devon have many cliffs, with sheltered coves, caves and bays that made ideal hideaways for smugglers and pirates. Indeed there is plenty of archaeological evidence for smuggling and related activities in the area. The rocky coast was also the cause of many shipwrecks, and historically the locals would think little of plundering the cargo of wrecked ships off the coast; with such activities ingrained in the local culture it's feasible that piracy was a natural next step for many. A final factor is that the main occupations in the area were fishing and mining; low paid manual work that provided handy skills in seafaring and boring rock to create secret tunnels and caves - very handy for smugglers and pirates!

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That goes a long way to explain why Gilbert and Sullivan placed their pirates in Penzance! –  gmcgath Dec 19 '12 at 19:09

There was no standard language on a pirate ship. Crews were typically multinational in makeup. Often, crewmen were pressed from prize ships, so they could be from any number of countries.

The most interesting thing is that anyone on a pirate ship could understand anything at all, given the many nationalities the sailors pirates were. Not only English, Dutch and French aboard, but often African as well; former slaves often joined the ranks rather than return to a life of slavery. Can you imagine the conversations and dialects going on aboard ship during any down time? And how could they ever understand the commands required to run a large vessel on the open sea, let alone during the heat of battle?

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There was and remains to this day a dialect of British English wherein "arrr" would be the appropriate spelling to imitate their pronunciation of "aye", which is commonly used to express agreement with some statement. IMHO, those who append "g" are influenced by another popular expression (of disgust) usually rendered "aargh". Granted, pirate ships were crewed by miscreants from all of the British Isles and parts of Europe, and the romantic notion of a standardized pirate lingo is almost certainly fictional -- but, if I were to pick one element that most likely would have been heard on many pirate ships, "arrr" would be the winner.

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"Pirate speech" is taken solely from Long John Silver in Treasure island and, as it relates to pirates as a whole, is entirely fictional.

However, Long John Silver is speaking a real vernacular/regionalism of English from one specific region of pre-industrial England, the name of which escapes me at the moment. It is also the source of the present tense use of "be" as in "I be chill'in" that is common in parts of the American south settled by English of the region.

Louis Stevenson spent sometime in the region, liked the unique sound of the vernacular and used it to create one of the most memorable characters in English literature. I'm not sure if anyone still speaks it today.

I did a write up about it years ago when talk like a Pirate Day first started. I'll see if I can find the references.

Edit:

Yep, it was the West Country Dialect as noted by others. You can see it in the following:

Low German  Somerset    Standard British English
Ik bün  I be/A be       I am
Du büst Thee bist       You are (archaic "Thou art")
He is   He be           He is
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