Arrr, Matey! The Origins of the Pirate Accent

Blackbeard

Cover of "Blackbeard, Buccaneer" (1922)

Ask people to imitate a pirate, and they instinctually adopt the “pirate accent” immortalized in film and television. This unique brogue is renowned for it’s strong “r” sound, as in “yarrr” and “arrrrr.”

Pirate imitators may wonder, “What accent am I doing? Some kinda Irish?”

The classic “pirate dialect,” in fact, is not Irish, but rather a crude imitation of the slightly similar West Country English (the dialects of Southwest England)*. Why do fictional pirates always speak in this accent? Here’s the standard explanation: During the Golden Age of Piracy, in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, many English pirates came from this region. Look up famous seadogs from the era, and you’ll find birthplaces in Bristol, Devon, and Cornwall. Mystery solved, right?

Not so fast. The golden age of piracy ended by the mid-eighteenth century. How can we collectively remember how these men spoke? And how can everyday people approximate the accent of 18th-century English pirates with such surprising verisimilitude?

I can only think of one explanation. At some point in time, some actor must have needed to play one of these pirates. Upon discovering that his pirate character was from the West Country, he decided to use the appropriate accent. And somehow this convention must have spread.

But where, and when, did this convention originate? My experience suggests the pirate brogue emerged as a dramatic staple in the 20th-Century. As a child, I was a huge fan of early pirate flicks like Treasure Island (1934) and Errol Flynn’s Captain Blood, and I don’t recall any West Country accents in those films. So perhaps it was a later phenomenon.

With this in mind, I decided to do some research on the matter. I think I may have stumbled upon a possible culprit for the Pirate accent, thanks to the website of Bonaventure, a British maritime re-enactment group:

Long John Silver lived in Bristol, England, supposedly the birthplace of Edward Teach, Blackbeard. In the early 1950s Disney produced films of “Treasure Island” (1950) and “Blackbeard the Pirate”(1952), and the same actor was used to play Silver and Teach – Robert Newton. Newton then reprised his role of Long John Silver for “Long John Silver” (1954) and the TV series “The adventures of Long John Silver (1955). Robert Newton was born and raised in Dorset, not far from Bristol, so he knew the West Country accent which Silver and Teach would have spoken in very well, and used it in those films.

If Disney had perhaps not cast Newton, is it possible the pirate accent would have never entered the popular consciousness?

As usual, I welcome alternate theories.

*An old post at Language Log explores a different explanation rooted in Ireland.

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith began his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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33 Responses to Arrr, Matey! The Origins of the Pirate Accent

  1. dw says:

    In “Accents of English”, John Wells notes that the pirate accent is also very similar to a Barbadian (Bajan) accent.

    • TT says:

      Maybe the accent there is just a conservative accent (from the 17th century when English sailors first landed there) and any conservative accent would sound somewhat pirate-like (or West Country-like). That’s my theory, because I’ve heard recordings of how English would’ve sounded in Shakespeare’s time and that’s what it sounds like to me.

    • trawicks says:

      Bajan probably also has a fair bit of Irish influence due to early immigration patterns. Although as TT suggests, most accents of English would have been a bit more “brogue-like” before the seventeenth-Century.

  2. ella says:

    funny, I always thought the Robert Newton theory was the widely accepted explanation. Won’t hear any argument from me!

    • trawicks says:

      It probably is widely accepted, although it’s a new one to me. If it holds water, it’s fascinating for two reasons. Firstly, that one actor can have such an influence on popular perceptions of a certain kind of character. Secondly, given how widespread the pirate accent is in popular culture, it’s ironic that few people watch the two films Newton performed these accents in. At least that’s my assumption–I don’t much know what eight-year-olds watch these days!

    • Martin Allen says:

      I am Dorset born and bred, as was the great Robert Newton, i even come from the same area of Dorset, The Blackmore Vale and on most Friday or Saturday nights in the pubs around here you’ll here Newtons Pirate Accent because me darlins that’s how we does speak AAaaarrrrrRrr.

  3. Cclinton says:

    Yeah, I’ve heard that the “pirate accent” is based on more archaic forms of english, like the use of [əɪ] instead of modern [aɪ].

  4. Charles Sullivan says:

    Pirates don’t really talk in that strange way (almost Scottich,
    i would think) in historical sea-faring fiction, meaning the Hornblower series by CS Forester, or the The Aubrey–Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian.

    Both lads have done research.

  5. boynamedsue says:

    I think that I’ve heard the same explanation before, on a Radio 4 programme in the early ’90s. It’s pretty obviously true, if you think about it.

    But the pirate accent might not actually be that far wrong. There was evidently a “nautical English”, which will have had a strong West Country and Lancashire influence, both strongly rhotic up to the 20th century.

    Robert Louis Stevenson’s 19th century portrayal of pirates speaking non-standard West Country dialects in the novel of Treasure Island almost certainly pushes the theatrical pirate accent back 80 years before the Disney film. I suspect Newton was using an accent which had a long history in the British theatre.

  6. trawicks says:

    @Cclinton,

    It’s more older/conservative English than archaic. As with Irish, Scottish and Jamaican English, many West Country accents maintain features that have disappeared in other varieties of British English.

    @Charles,

    O’Brien is probably more on the mark! Although it’s true that many pirates came from the West Country, this region is hardly monolithic in terms of accent/dialect features.

    @boynamedsue,

    A very good point about Stevenson’s dialogue. We’ve mostly been discussing accents here, rather than dialects. The West Countryisms in Stevenson’s writing would have at least given actors a nudge long before Newton came along.

  7. It wasn’t just pirates who came from the West Country – a good portion of English seamen (from the days of Drake until the end of the Napoleonic wars) came from the main sea-faring ports – Falmouth, Bideford & Barnstaple and Bristol. Pirates were, after all, just sailors who had deserted the navy, so the “Arrr” was a very common form of “yes” spoken through the 16th-19th century.

    Cpt Aubrey & Hornblower (& all similar characters) were educated men, with educated accents, not the dialect of the foremast jacks.

    To prove my point…. who watches the archaeology programme Time Team? Listen to Phil (the one with the long hair & the hat) He is from the West Country – he says “Arrr” often.

    Treasure Island was indeed written with Bristol in mind – in fact the tavern which gave Stevenson the idea for the Admiral Benbow is still there – The Llandoger Trow. Part of it remains a tavern, the rest is now a Premier Inn hotel (I stayed there a couple of weeks ago!)

    Helen Hollick
    author of the Sea Witch Voyages

    • trawicks says:

      Thanks for sharing, Helen! I should probably be aware of the West Country/Seafaring connection as much as anybody. My first name, Trawick, is an Americanization of the Cornish surname brought to the States via a seventeenth-century Cornish seaman named Robarde Traweek (at least that’s what the genealogy records suggest–I’ve seen a few other theories).

  8. Amy Stoller says:

    The Newton theory is indeed widely accepted, and widely written upon. Obviously real pirates in those days were a polyglot (if I may use the term collectively), as well as a motley, crew – and I would think there were more than a few of pidgins spoken. I’m pretty sure, however (and I say this with some regret), that none of them sounded like Keith Richards. Savvy?

    Ben, are you familiar with International Talk Like a Pirate Day (every September 19)? I think it may be my favorite holiday.

  9. Rhys says:

    They really do sound like pirates in North Devon. Check this video out at around the 1min mark!

  10. trawicks says:

    @Amy,

    I’m not aware ITLAPD! Although I think I might be a bit shy in participating. Do they have parades? A parade of full-grown men dressed as pirates would be spectacular (or possibly something they do every 3PM at Disneyworld).

    @Rhys,

    In the “related videos” tab on the right-hand side of the screen, one is titled “Devonshire accents sound like pirates!”

  11. This seems very believable.

    Somewhere along the line it’s become unquestioned convention that pirates spoke with a West Country accents, in fact many people actually believe this in all seriousness, forgetting that many pirates and privateers were (for example) Welsh, such as Bartholomew Roberts and Henry Morgan. Geographically close but a long way away in accents terms.

  12. Cod says:

    It is important to distinguish between homophones “yarr” and “yare”, the former being an adverb or interjection used as a dialectal alteration of “yes”, and the latter being an adjective derived from Old English “gearu” meaning “ready”. Both have associated nautical usage.

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  14. Walt says:

    I had always mentioned that the entire line of pirate depictions beyond the films came from Robert Newton’s portrayals. They were certainly the most colorful and fun to listen to, but it wasn’t just his chosen dialect for those parts that changed the world’s view on pirate behavior. His one-eyed squint and other facial expressions have also been adopted as necessary for a successful pirate characterization.

    When I’ve mentioned this, most people had no idea who Robert Newton was. If you saw him playing the part of any other type of Englishman, or a relatively nondescript one by accent, you might not recognize him right away. But everyone knows Long John Silver and Blackbeard, with voice, accent and face that depict the perfect pirate character, most having no knowledge that it was Newton’s portrayal that taught them what a pirate should be to begin with.

    Who could forget him sitting below, munching on a piece of what looks like chicken, and letting out with a loud belch, shouting, “Sarbones! Sarbones! Got a pain in me innards!!” We also might have wondered just who “Jimarkins” was, and yet Jim Hawkins always responded.

    Personally, although Newton was quite a good actor in all his films, it was difficult for me to adjust to him playing those other roles. He seemed to have defined himself, although most actors shun typecasting, and I had always wished for at least one more film made with him playing a similar character.

    I had met several guys from the West Country part of England, back when a friend and I used to take vacations in Miami Beach, and truly enjoyed listening to their accents, although they weren’t anywhere near as dramatic as what Newton used. There were these English guys who spoke in an accent that other Englishmen said “sounded like Americans,” and yet, to us, they were yet another interesting accent type that had distant origins. I think it was the rhotic nature of their speech. They pronounced their Rs the way we do, but much harder, almost overly pronounced, hence the “Arrrr” that would occasionally arise. When the other Englishmen would even say that letter alone, it sounded as though the doctor was about to check their tonsils. Listening to those other guys, one might believe that the letter R was the most important part of their version of the English language. In fact, listening to a group of them speaking at their table in a restaurant, just far enough away so that you cannot understand all they’re saying, the R parts of their words can become the most prominent, as though they were all saying to one another, “Arrrr an’ arrr, with a whiskey sarrr arrround the barrrr–HARRR!”

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  16. Mark says:

    Whilst newton may have popularised the West Country accent, I think it was probably one that was already well used in the theatre. I think Gilbert and Sullivan, who wrote HMS Pinafore (1878), and The Pirates on Penzance (1879) will have been responsible for globalising the accent for Pirates. Their productions were extremely successful in Britain and America, and in New York City they are performed with much gusto every year, and great attention is paid to getting the stereotype West Country accents penned by G&S correct. Many Shakespeare productions use \ used West Country accents to represent rouges / working class characters (though strangely cockney, a dialect not known in 16th\17th Century England, has become popular, even though the characters have no association with the 18th/19th Century East End). As for American dialects, much of the eastern seaboard, and particularly New England, owes their origins to the West Country, and the leap isn’t that great – just as the ‘educated’ vernacular of may ‘old’ US families owe their pronunciation to what has become known as Received Pronunciation. To be frank, I am always more surprised by an American who speaks with RP, than one whose accent is routed from the West Country, or in the case of Boston and parts of New York Ireland.

  17. LadyInTO says:

    We lived in Devon between the Moore’s for a few years as small children. We didn’t have a car (Dad used it driving for work) and there weren’t any buses. The school had three age groups per year and three classrooms. We picked up the accent, but my younger sister was only two when we moved there, so she picked it up thick. When we left, she caused a stir in London. She looked like a little angel with natural blond corkscrew ringlets and a cherub face and heart shaped lips. But she spoke with a deep guttural farmers accent at 5 years old (to top it off, she was particularly small for her age). It hadn’t occurred to us until it was pointed out to us that she sounded like a pirate.

    Impressively, she can put on that accent (among others) whenever she wants to as an adult. How she does it while still sounding feminine, I’ll never figure out.

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  22. It may be that the roots of the sound lie deeper. If “barbarian” comes from the impact the guttural speech of “foreigners” had on the ears of the Greeks (“Bar-bar-bar”), could not the “Arrrrr!” of West Country English have been appropriated to indicate pirates and/or seafaring folk, to people not speaking the language (and possibly even to English speakers from outside the region)? We so often hear unique sounds pulled from languages used to describe the language itself (as often insultingly); I’ve wondered whether “Pirate speak” might go back to the days when they stormed the decks and docks of other lands, leaving this vestigial sound behind as a souvenir of their visit.

  23. MR says:

    Well, I accept the Robert Newton theory. To prove it’s right, why do you think romans in movies have London accents. Because the first dramatizings o ancient Rome were written by Shakespeare.

  24. Sean says:

    A lot of the Caribbean accents originated in Ireland for reasons few know. When Oliver Cromwell went over to Ireland he fell upon the country with Puritan vengence for their Papist ways. His troops committed mass atrocities and took many tens of thousands of prisoners and shipped them off to the Caribbean islands and slaves. Being some of the first mass settlers there their accents formed the root accents. To this day the sing song Jamaican accent very closely resembles the Irish accents from the Irish City of Cork. The singer Rhianna has Irish slave roots. These Irish slaves were treated with horrific brutality that set the tone for how slaves were later treated. They were later used to breed lighter coloured slaves with the newly arrived African slaves. Their memory was forgotten by breeding them away but their numbers were huge and their suffering great. It is correct that English was spoken in Ireland from very early times and some aspects of old English survive in common use in Ireland to this day that have ended elsewhere. For example ‘Ye’ is still used as you plural in most places in Ireland and there are many other examples. Irish Gaelic was far more widely spoken until the 1847 famine. But that a different story of British genocide. It was genocide because Parliament choose to let the British aristocracy in Ireland export food and allowed them to throw their starving tenants off their land. It was genocide because they choose not to import cheap American corn to end the famine because it might depress the prices the rich aristocratic landlords were getting for their crops. Well over a million died and in the later decades millions more had to flee to America. Off topic I agree but English history books don’t tell these tales.

  25. Tam McBam says:

    I believe the accents came from the South West of England, and also from Wales, if the Caribbean accents are anything to go by. There are just too many similarities in sound in most of the countries that the slaves were brought to by the many pirates (a lot of the now accepted ‘goodies’ were pirates, and had crews from these areas) at that time.
    The surnames the people have are a bit of a givaway as well. OK so quite a lot of Scots names are there, but the majority are in from the seafaring areas of the South west, but with very few Cornish names.
    The rrrrr’s therefore rule!

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