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?


11 Answers 11


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."

[October 12, 2007 - Adams, C., 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.


"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, writing in 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.

  • I edited this post quite a bit, but in the end, I think I supplied a pretty in depth answer. Commented May 2, 2011 at 18:32
  • 1
    Indeed, underclass English is heavily rhotic.
    – AndrewS
    Commented Apr 27, 2012 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.

  • 1
    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. Commented May 23, 2012 at 20:24
  • 9
    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
    Commented Jul 10, 2012 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.


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!

  • 2
    That goes a long way to explain why Gilbert and Sullivan placed their pirates in Penzance!
    – user32047
    Commented Dec 19, 2012 at 19:09
  • That's true about Penzance, but it's also meant to be funny. In the 19C Penzance was a popular seaside resort. Americans might get the same incongruous effect from a musical called "The Pirates of Atlantic City". As for the West Country accent, that was Newton's own accent: he was born in Dorset.
    – John Cowan
    Commented Jan 13, 2019 at 18:05

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?


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

  • OK, well it's a step in the right direction.
    – delete
    Commented Aug 18, 2010 at 3:12

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.


"Shiver my timbers" was a genuine historical nautical phrase.

The 1811 The Monthly Review refers to:

the nautical phrase, “shiver my timbers,”

Here, "shiver" means to break into splinters. It only makes sense to say with respect to a wooden boat.

In the 1794 play Rule Britannia: a loyal sketch, in two acts, at page 31, Thomas tells Captain Anchor:

Yes, Sir, your heart does not beat alone for your mistress; for shiver my timbers if it did not thump most manfully for your King and country in the late glorious action

Earlier there are similar phrases, such as in the 1764 The Tatler; or, Lucubrations of Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq, Volume 1:

"Hark'ee, Ben," said the old sailor, knocking the ashes from his pipe upon the hob ; " you may try, but dash my timbers if you'll ever cross the Thames to-night

Similarly, "hearties" was a genuine term for comrades starting in the 1700s, not limited to pirates or necessarily nautical.

For example in the 1778 London Magazine; Or, Gentleman's Monthly Intelligencer:

Should Monfieur come,
And beat his drum,
To frighten British hearties;
'Twould but unite
Us all to fight
And reconcile our parties

And from The Antijacobin Review and True Churchman's Magazine (1812)

Soldiers and sailors who do not like flogging, Hasten to him, and he'll teach you to brew
Mischief in Church and State,
Sedition in debate ; —
Forward, my hearties ! the game is in view.

So, in conclusion, "shiver my timbers" and "my hearties" did have a factual basis but were not limited to pirates.


"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.


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

Though much of the modern impression of "pirate slang" is undoubtedly shaped by fiction (beginning with "Treasure Island" in particular), there is a fair amount of truth buried deep. In my view, the best-written piratical dialogue in modern fiction draws a lot from period prose.

You can see some examples in "A General History of the Pyrates," published 1724. Free on Gutenberg. For example:

A most barbarous Action of his Crew

This was Mortification with a Vengeance, and you may imagine, they did not depart without some hard Speeches from those that were left, and had suffered by their Treachery: (..) the Remains of his Crew, to vent their Wrath in a few Oaths and Execrations.

A lot of lingo, like "put to sea" and other sailor terms, are well documented by naval officers.

I highly recommend The Pirate Primer, referenced by MatthewMartin, for the etymology of pirate phrases (and also a delightful read). It cites every source for what I expect are thousands of example phrases, epithets, etc. The large majority is taken from fiction, but there are several period documents, too. Unfortunately I don't have my copy with me at the moment.

According to my memory of the book, it did specifically mention documentation of the word "shiver" being used in reference to the motions masts make in storms.

But let's face it. Why say "Yarr" and "Shiver me timbers" when you've got great threats, like "let light into [ye]", "make ye kiss the gunner's daughter" (leaning someone over a cannon and administering lashes), and "hang you from the highest yardarm"?


The chances are that many pirates did say "ooh arr me hearties," - at least, they would have said (i) "Ooh Arr!" and (ii) "Me hearties"

As noted, "Ooh! Aah" is a stereotypical West Country[1] dialect interjection. Bristol was the major British port for transatlantic and the slave trade: It produced its fair share of pirates and privateers. (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bristol#17th_and_18th_centuries)

OED Hearty(n.) 2. a. As an affectionate form of address (chiefly used by or to a sailor), esp. in phrase my (also me) hearty. Cf heart n. 22.Now chiefly used in humorous representations of the speech of pirates.

1735 Groan from True Blue Presbyterian 9 When awaking the Attention of their Hearers, the Phrase is, O! Hearties, Hearties, hear me now, &c.

1776 C. Dibdin Seraglio i. ii. 9 What dost say, my Hearty?

b. A sailor. Also: a brave person; a good fellow. Now rare.

1790 C. Dibdin Coll. Songs II. 30 To be roguish is no valuation To hearties who plough the salt sea.

[1](The area to the south and west of Bristol, UK).