How Did Pirates Talk?

It’s challenging to think about pirates without throwing in an “arrg” or an “ahoy.” There’s even an International Talk Like a Pirate day. But as well-known as pirate talk seems, it has no historical basis.

Pirates talked like ordinary sailors of their time, but they were famous for using foul language. Crew members usually spoke the language of where the crew originally came from, usually Welsh, English, or French. International crews would often speak French.

Even though there is no such thing as pirate speech, there is still much to be said about the way pirates spoke. In this article, I’ll explain where the myth of pirate talk comes from and how crewmembers from different parts of the world managed to communicate with each other.

Why Did Pirates Talk Weird?

Pirates didn’t talk weirdly. They used a lot of foul language but talked like normal sailors of their time. At sea, sailors used highly technical language that could be incomprehensible to non-sailors.

There are almost no historical documents describing how pirates spoke during the Golden Age of Piracy. [1] After all, they were criminals, and people who wrote books likely didn’t spend much time around pirates.

Some pirates came from the high class and left many writings behind, such as letters and pleas to the courts. These writings read like any other document from that period—there’s nothing in them resembling “pirate speech.”

Of course, these were learned men that likely didn’t talk like the average crew member. Still, there is no evidence suggesting pirates had anything like a unique way of speaking.

The only thing that characterized a pirate’s way of speaking was their constant use of foul language. This is well documented in many historical documents, and it’s usually lumped together with their habits of drinking, whoring, and violence. [2]

Pirates were sailors, so it’s safe to assume they spoke like any sailor of that period. Sailing terminology was—and still is—vast and complicated. Regardless of their native language, crew members of any given pirate ship would have to be acquainted with the highly technical sailor language.

Why Do People Believe Pirates Talked Weird?

People believe pirates talked weirdly because that’s how they’ve been portrayed in books and movies since the 1954 film Treasure Island. In his performance as a pirate, Robert Newton decided to incorporate a West Country accent. This is where most popular pirate expressions come from.

As with so many of the common assumptions about pirates, pirate speech is a thing from fiction. It can be traced back to Robert Newton’s performance of Long John Silver in Treasure Island, a Disney movie from 1954. [3] The movie is based on Robert L. Stevenson’s book of the same name, which is probably the single most influential work of fiction about pirates.

Robert Newton decided to add a bit of flair to his character by giving him a speech that could have plausibly been spoken by pirates. He based it on the accent of his native land, the West Country in southeast England. Historically, the speech of this region contained a lot of maritime expressions.

Newton’s performance took the spotlight of the movie. He introduced expressions like “arr,” “shiver me timbers,” and “me hearties,” which would become an essential part of “pirate talk” in any movie or book about pirates.

As effective as Newton’s performance might have been, there isn’t any historical evidence to back it up. Some sailors in the 17th and 18th century Caribbean came from the West Country, but they made up only a small portion of all pirates.

What Language Did Most Pirates Speak?

Most pirates spoke Welsh, English, or French. Crew members usually spoke the language of the country where the crew was assembled, and new crew members would learn the language spoken by the majority. International crews would often speak French.

Pirate crews were made of people of disparate nationalities and origins, but they didn’t always start off that way. Many pirate ships were previously privateer ships that kept raiding after their license expired or simply went rogue.

For example, William Kidd started as an English privateer. He was labeled a pirate after allegedly abusing his privateering license provided by the English crown. Henry Morgan, originally from Wales, gathered his crew entirely in Jamaica and raided ships as a privateer on behalf of England.

The crews of most privateer ships had a common origin and would speak the language of the place they were from.

As the ship dived into piracy, the crew would slowly acquire new members from many places in the Americas. These recruits had to adapt to the language spoken by the majority of the crew.

This resulted in varying levels of competency. Some crew members may have resorted to pidgin languages—a mix of two languages with simplified grammar and vocabulary. Still, most people on a ship would try to use the same language.

The question, then, comes down to where most pirates came from.

The Spanish crown suffered the most from piracy, especially at the hands of the French and the English. These buccaneers-turned-pirates were usually sent out by France and the English crown.

However, during the Golden Age of Piracy, many ships may have been crewed from scratch. Pirates held votes to choose the captain of their ship, which might have caused crews from different ships to mix.

Pirates from this time were often opportunistic people from the lower classes who sought a way to get rich quickly. This allure brought people from across Europe, especially Wales, England, Ireland, Scotland, France, the Netherlands, and Sweden. [4]

In these cases, the crew’s language would usually depend on the location. If the crew was assembled in Jamaica, they would likely speak English. If it was assembled in Haiti, then the main language would be French.

If a ship got its crew from a relatively international location, such as Tortuga, it would most likely speak French. Back then, French was the closest thing to an international language there was.

[1] Source
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