His latest book, Piracy: The Complete History is out now.
Talking like a real Pirate!
If you ask almost anyone to talk like a pirate, the best they come up with is “Arrrr!”. Fine though that is, it isn\'t a particularly useful phrase, and it\'s difficult to work into conversations. Worse still, I\'m a historian who\'s been studying pirates for years, and even I\'d be hard pressed to come up with a real historical pirate who actually uttered a single “Arrr!” Other supposedly “piratical” exclamations make more sense - things like “Ahoy” (hello there); “Avast” (hey!); Aye (yes) and even “Aye Aye” (OK, boss). They\'re all good nautical phrases from the age of sail, and part of the sailor talk of the time. Blackbeard would have been happy hearing any of those, but “Arrr!” would have been as incomprehensible to him as “Yo Blood!”.
That\'s the big problem with International Talk Like a Pirate Day. On 19th September, people don\'t really talk like pirates - they talk like British actors pretending to be pirates. It all comes back to Walt Disney\'s Treasure Island, which first hit the cinema screens in 1951. The wily old seadog Long John Silver was played by Robert Newton, a fine British character actor who drew on his Cornish roots when he went “in character”. The result was that Long John Silver spoke with a great West Country accent, which really seemed to go well with the parrot, the wooden leg and the battered old seafarer look.
Of course, Robert Newton didn\'t just stop there. As well as all that “Arrr, Jim lad!”, “Avast me hearties”, and “Scurvy swabs”, the actor indulged in an awful lot of over-acting, which involved growling a lot, theatrical eye-rolling, and pirate parrot one-liners. It was a memorable performance - so much so that everyone now assumes that all pirates talked just like Robert Newton.
Actually, the truth was very different. “Black Bart” Roberts was from South Wales, and talked like a lad from the valleys. William Kidd was from Greenock, outside Glasgow, and spoke like a Manchester United manager. John Gow hailed from Orkney, so he had that lilting, almost Scandinavian accent that passes for English up there. Other well-known pirates came from London (think Ray Winstone), Norfolk, Portsmouth - just about any British port you could think of. Oh, and of course a lot of pirates weren\'t even British at all, but Colonial Americans, Frenchmen, Dutchmen, Portuguese, Spaniards or even runaway slaves. None of these people spoke like Robert Newton, and most would have been hard-pressed to figure out a word he said!
Well, I\'ll concede that a few pirates hailed from the West Country. Blackbeard - the most notorious pirate of them all - is meant to have been from Bristol, while “Black Sam” Bellamy was raised in Devon. Even these pirates had spent most of their seafaring lives in the Caribbean or the Americas, and would have lost a lot of their West Country “burr”. While this might all seem a little disappointing to would-be pirate talkers, it really opens up a world of piratical opportunity. Imagine a pirate talking like Gerard Depardieu, Antonio Banderas, or even an actor playing Poirot. Doesn\'t that sound more interesting than following the Robert Newton crowd?
Of course, you can still festoon your pirate lingo with “Captain Haddock” expressions like “blisterin\' barnacles”, or call people “lily livered swabs”. That\'s just good seafaring talk. Similarly you can still speak about marooning, drinking grog, bilge rats, hoisting mainsails and Davy Jones\' locker. On Talk like a Pirate Day you should feel free to call the secretary a “buxom wench”, the water-cooler the “scuttlebutt” and the boss “Cap\'n”. Just stand out from the crowd, and try it in the real accent of a real cutthroat from the “Golden Age of Piracy” rather than just a guy who played a part in a Walt Disney film!