An old ink drawing of ships descending on a port town in Algiers.
To Talk like a Pirate

“To know how to curse is to claim (or to be ascribed) cultural authenticity; on the other [side], however, to curse to is to demonstrate an incapacity for-or a criminal departure from- proper, purposive, speech” (Brown 538).  This dilemma of cursing was not an issue for Golden Age pirates because crude language was a central and celebrated component to the pirate dialect and as such, swearing was indeed not a sign of incapacity for language but was the only way to fit into the culture.  To take a criminal departure from proper speech only makes sense for the pirate who had already chosen a criminal departure from society as a whole.  He simply completes his lifestyle of rejecting mainstream culture by adopting a new and highly offensive language.  This language of defiance still fascinates land dwellers three hundred years later and even though the dialect has changed over time from the influence of media, everyone wants to talk like a pirate.

An old drawing of Bartholomew Roberts, best known as Black Bart.

Bartholomew Roberts was the infamous Captain Black Bart. He began sailing young but was actually against piracy when he was captured by a pirate ship. Six weeks later the crew elected Roberts captain as his predecessor was shot. He accepted saying 'that since he had dipp'd his Hands in Muddy Water, and must be a Pyrate, it was better being a Commander than a common Man.'

The eighteenth century was a poor century to be a sailor.  Any man shipping out on a merchant or navy ship could expect “cramped quarters, poor victuals, brutal discipline, low wages, devastating diseases, disabling accidents, and premature death” (Rediker 9).  It was not an appealing occupation and so there were times when no men wanted to set out to sea as sailors.  The Navy, for one, could not abide with this and formed press gangs which actually went out on the street to capture sailors, and sometimes just any man they could find, and forced them into service on the Navy ships (Woodard 37).  These conditions easily bred contempt, desperation, and thus rebellion and journalist Colin Woodard tells that “dissatisfaction was so great aboard merchant vessels, that typically when the pirates captured one, a portion its crew enthusiastically joined their ranks” (Woodard 3).  

And why wouldn’t they?  The growing force of piracy in that day conversely “offered the prospect of plunder and ‘ready money,’ abundant food and drink, the election of officers, the equal distribution of resources, care for the injured, and joyous camaraderie, all as expressions of an ethic of justice” (Rediker 9).  Pirate crews were united upon the ideals that seafaring men deserved equal pay and good treatment aboard ship along with equal voice in decisions because this was precisely what they were not entitled to on merchant ships.  There was the minor problem of legality but the men who became pirates were willing to overlook that.  Also, many pirates remained bitter about the treatment they received in their former sailing lives and were able to use piracy to seek revenge as well as profit.  When taking merchant ships, the pirates often felt it was their duty of justice to punish any cruel captains and set an example for other captains who would treat their crews unfairly (Rediker 93).  Piracy became a democratic society, a revolutionary society, an anti-society. 

An old sketch of pirate captain Charles Vane.

Charles Vane is best known as a pirate captain for his cruelty and deception. When his crew finally marooned him, Vane was happened on an old acquaintance who refused to take him on board saying, 'Charles, I shan't trust you aboard my ship, unless I carry you a prisoner; for I shall have you plotting with my men, knock me on the head and run away with my ship a pirating.'

Linguist M.A.K. Halliday defines an anti-society as "a society that is set up within another society as a conscious alternative to it. It is a mode of resistance, resistance which may take the form either of passive symbiosis or of active hostility and even destruction" (Halliday 570).  Piracy represented more than a simple escape from cruel conditions of sailing in the eighteenth century, it was a system set up in direct opposition to the merchant and navy ships repression. Piracy was a place where working class men experienced an equality unknown to them not only on other sailing ships, but on land as well where they would be decidedly lower class.  Piracy was completely antithetical to the larger society where they lived and their lifestyle was indeed controversial because not only did it lack oppression and inequality, it also seemed to be missing certain moral standards.  While the average Englishmen was back in Britain working hard to earn an honest wage, supporting a family, going to church, and drinking tea; the average pirate spent his days robbing passing ships, visiting brothels on shore, occasionally torturing men, using death and sexual innuendoes as a banner, and drinking rum on a boat in the Caribbean where he need not work too hard due to the large numbers of men typically employed in a pirate crew.  Pirates sought profit and wrought destruction without mind for consequences. 

As most anti-societies develop, they also create a crucial and complementary anti-language because “an anti-language is the means of realization of a subjective reality: not merely expressing it, but actively creating and maintaining it” (Brown 576).  Pirates were no exception and created an offensive and shocking language to go with an offensive and shocking lifestyle because how silly would it be for a pirate to spend his day robbing respectable men and then to chat over his rum that night in the Queen’s English?

Sailors, in general, are infamous for their own specialized dialect full of ship terminology such as aft, keel, and portside as well as more bawdy phrases, as is evident with contemporary labels such as “swear like a sailor.”  The majority of pirates, then, began as ordinary sailors and already had this sort of vocabulary as a base but they took it even further to the side of rude and lewd.  Captain William Snelgrave was an eighteenth century slaver who was captured by pirates and lived among them for a length of time.  Writing about the experience later, he remarks

Moreover, the execrable Oaths and Blasphemies I heard among the Ship’s Company shocked me to such a degree, that in Hell itself I thought there could not be worse; for though many Seafaring Men are given to swearing and taking God’s Name in vain, yet I could not have imagined human Nature could ever so far degenerate as to talk in the manner these adended Wretches did.

(Snelgrave 217)

An old sketch of pirate captian Howell Davies.

Howell Davies was only a pirate captain for 11 months before he was shot. In that time he captured Captain William Snelgrave who deem Davies as a man 'who (allowing for the Course of Life he had been unhappily engaged in) was a most generous humane Person.'

This poor language shows not only a rebellion against proper language, but against religion as well.  Not rejecting it entirely, for the pirates clearly believed in God and the Devil as well as the concepts of heaven and hell, but they mocked it in their own way.  The pirates made death their banner and often called their flag Old Roger, which was another name for Satan in that time period (Rediker 167).  Blackbeard, the widely feared pirate captain, would often light his beard on fire and shout he had come from the depths of Hell and was well acquainted with the Devil himself (Defoe 85).  The bold manner in which pirates brandished death and advocated hell only added to their ability to terrorize ships they boarded and towns they raided.  The pirates freely admitted they would go to hell for their lives of debauchery and they drank merrily to their fate.  After a group of pirates had been captured and were awaiting trial, one sailor began to pray and was accosted by a fellow sailor for such an act.  When the first sailor explained that he was trying to gain heaven, the second responded incredulously, “Heaven, you Fool, did you ever hear of any Pyrates going thither?  Give me Hell, it’s a merrier Place” (Defoe 246).

The language itself provided an extra layer of unity among pirates as “evidence suggests that sea robbers may have had a sense of belonging to a separate, in some manner exclusive, speech community” (Rediker 97).  No one besides pirates spoke as pirates did in part because it was so vulgar but also to talk so was to associate oneself with pirates.  The specialized speech of pirates was recognizable outside the realm of piracy as is evident when one non-pirate sailor who spent time among them commented how the pirates spoke to him “in their proper dialect” (Rediker 97).  To speak as a pirate spoke was also the way to be accepted or respected in the pirate culture.  A British officer by the name of Plunkett was once captured by Bartholomew Roberts and as soon as realized his dilemma, the officer “fell a swearing and cursing as fast or faster than Roberts; which made the rest of the Pirates laugh heartily, desiring Roberts to sit down and hold his Peace...So that by a mere Dint of Cursing and Damning, Old Plunkett…sav’d his life” (Rediker 97).

Pirate language defines the society of pirates and reflects how the sailors formed their image not only in their conversation but also in the names they chose for themselves and their symbols which “stressed the irreverent, oppositional, radically autonomous, do-or-die ethic that controlled pirate identity” (Mackie 50).  Naming ships such things as Batchelor’s Delight, Liberty, and Happy Delivery easily reflected the relaxed lifestyles and freedom valued by the pirates.  Other names such as Queen Anne’s Revenge show political ties to things like the Jacobite rebellion, which many pirate associated themselves with (Woodard 214).  Pirate nicknames also showcased pirate traits or personalities such as with Calico Jack, Blackbeard, Black Bart Roberts, and Black Sam Bellamy.  Obviously, the color black was an important symbol to the pirates with its connection to death.  The pirates’ association with death was discussed earlier as it was used for terror and was represented on the pirate flag, which in addition to being called Old Roger, it was sometimes simply referred to as King Death (Rediker 166).  Not all titles for the flag referred death or the devil, though.  The term widely used today, Jolly Roger, has an entirely different connotation.  To ‘roger’ in the eighteenth century referred to intimate relations between a man and a woman and thus a ‘jolly roger’ would be a happy copulation (Rediker 167).  Pirate names showcase the blended ideals of taking death and damnation lightly while viewing drunkenness and merriment quite seriously.

An old sketch of the pirate captain Edward England.

Pirate Captain Edward England is best known for flying his ship under the classic skull and crossbones flag.

Shocking as it was to the average man on shore, this developed style of cursing was the hallmark of the pirate.  The pirates enjoyed their language and were continually working to add to it and improve it.  Captain George Lowther and his crew practically made a game of it.  When they would go ashore to careen their ships the pirates would “take their Diversions which consisted in unheard of Debaucheries, with drinking, swearing, and rioting, in which there seemed to be a kind Emulation among them, resembling rather Devils than Men, striving who should outdo one another in new invented Oaths and Execrations” (Defoe 312).  The most foul-mouthed pirate wins and it was through gatherings such as these that the pirate language grew, flourished, and diversified.

If any phrase in particularly were to be set aside as a pirate favorite, it would have to be “damn ye” or even just simply “damn.”  It shows up in several recorded pirate conversations and is used in various contexts by the pirates.  Captain Samuel Bellamy drops the phrase in casually during an apology when he expressly tells Captain Beer “Damn my Blood, I am sorry they won’t let you have your Sloop back,” but Bellamy turns to a more angry usage later in the same conversation when he exclaims, “damn ye, you are a sneaking Puppy” and “Damn them for a Pack of crafty Rascals” (Defoe 587).  Blackbeard employs it to hail another ship with “Damn you for Villains, who are you” (Defoe 80)?  To be fair, the other ship had been attacking him at the time, but the words can be cruel.  In a bloody battle, the crew of John Smith is cutting throats and shooting any men they can find when they come upon the Clerk who wishes to pray before he dies and the pirates tell him “Damn you, this is no Time to pray”  right before they shot him through the head (Defoe 359).  The word can also be used in a more noble way as Valentine Ashplant demonstrates.  He stands up in a court run by the crew to defend a friend with

God damn ye Gentlemen, I am as good a Man as the best of you; damn my Soul if ever I turned my Back to any Man in my Life, or ever will, by God; Glasby is an honest Fellow, notwithstanding this Misfortune, and I love him, Devil damn me if I don’t: I hope he’ll live and repent of what he has done; but damn me if he must die, I will die along with him.

(Defoe 223)

Ashplant then pulled out a pair of pistols and the jury decided to acquit Glasby of all charges.

Modern pirate lovers may be dismayed to find that their pirate heroes are more likely to greet them with “damn ye” than the traditional “arr matey” and they may be further surprised to find that there is actually no record of any pirate saying “arr.”  So where did this word even come from?  Did pirates ever use it?  As with most modern myths, the roots are to be found in Hollywood.  Though the peg legs and parrots squawking “Pieces of eight, Pieces of eight!” are taken directly from Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, the majority of contemporary pirate speech stereotypes can be traced back to the 1950 Walt Disney production of Treasure Island and Robert Newton who played the infamous Long John Silver. Robert Newton was born in Dorset, England and what he brought him with to the film to make it so memorable was his West Country accent.

The West Country dialect can be found in the southwest portion of England and is easily distinguishable for the strong burr, or rough ‘r’ sound.  There are several words distinct to the dialect and modern pirate fans will be glad to know that “arr” is a common term and translates basically to “yes” (McArthur).  Though the West Country accent is stereotyped with a confined rustic population today, it used to be found diversely over much of England (McArthur).  West Country men would have had decent representation among eighteenth century sailors and therefore pirates as well.  Captain Edward Teach, Blackbeard himself, and Calico Jack Rackam were actually Bristol men and thus from the heart of the West Country (Defoe 70).  It is possible, then, that Robert Newton’s famous pirate accent actually may not have been too far from the truth and was indeed heard upon pirate vessels.

An old sketch of Anne Bonny, one of only two known female pirates.

Anne Bonny is one of only two known female pirates. She sailed with Calico Jack until her capture in 1720 where she escaped excecution by being pregnant.

Whether it was true or not, the accent has captured the hearts of pirate lovers ever since Newton uttered his first “scurvy dog” and now any who wish to speak like a pirate will be spouting “avast” and “shiver me timbers” in their best John Newton impression (movie).  This pirate dialect is so popular today that people all across the world give up normal speech every September 19th and employ a more seaworthy tone to celebrate International Talk Like a Pirate Day.  This slightly silly holiday was first conceived by Mark Summers and John Baur on June 6, 1995 while playing racquetball when they broke into pirate accents during the game.  Afterwards, these inspired men decided that everyone should have an excuse to talk like a pirate in their normal lives and they began celebrating Talk Like a Pirate Day among themselves and with friends (Summers).  The day did not gain public recognition, though, until 2002 when Dave Barry, the Pulitzer Prize winning humor columnist, wrote an article and introduced the holiday by commenting “Every now and then, some visionary individuals come along with a concept that is so original and so revolutionary that your immediate reaction is: 'Those individuals should be on medication'” (Barry).  The holiday gained instant popularity and was helped further when, in 2003, the pirate subculture received an additional boost from the release of yet another Walt Disney production.  This time it was Johnny Depp who redefined the pirate image with such classic lines as “Why is the rum gone?” in Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (movie).

In recent years, people all across the globe have observed the holiday of International Talk Like a Pirate Day.  Summers and Baur received news via their own official website from individuals talking like pirates on every continent, even Antarctica (Summers).  Several newspapers and radio stations seek interviews every year with The Pirate Guys, as Mark Summers and John Baur have been officially dubbed, and International Talk Like a Pirate Day has shown up everywhere from CCN to Jeopardy (Summers).  The phenomenon is widely popular online with an uncountable number of English to pirate translators and instructional websites on how to talk like a pirate.  Facebook, the number one social networking site on the web, offers Pirate English as a language option for its users and routinely on September 19th, “Pirate Day!” is the number one trending topic on Twitter.  And so the question remains, why is this so popular?  Well, as The Pirate Guys explain it, “Talking like a pirate is fun. It's really that simple. It adds a zest, a swagger, to your everyday conversation. Do you need another reason?” (Summers).

Puritan Minister Cotton Mather may disagree with The Pirate Guys’ label of “fun” considering that in 1723 he described pirate speech as “Horrid Oathes and the Language of Fiends proclaime his Toungue set on fire of Hell. Bawdy and Filthy songs, enough to infect the very Air they are uttered in are the finest of his Vocal Music” (Mather 13).  Indeed, lest we forget, pirates and their distinctive language appalled as many land dwelling folks in the days of Mather as it fascinates today.  But between Jack Sparrow and International Talk like a Pirate Day, pirates have seduced modern society with their swashbuckling ways.  Though the true pirates of the Caribbean have little in common with the peg-legged stereotypes of today, language remains a firm foundation and defining element to pirate culture.  Whether it’s 1716 or 2012, if an aspiring seafarer wants to be recognized as a pirate, he must be able to ‘talk the talk.’

Works Cited

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