Why Do Pirates Say Arrr?

The Pirates of the Caribbean movies have, in recent years, revitalized the image of pirates as cheeky rogues. In truth, such characterizations say more about society’s need for escapist fantasies than they do about actual historical figures. Even the familiar “pirate-speak” is derived from earlier cinematic depictions rather than in-depth studies of dialect. 

Pirates saying “arr”  is mainly indebted to actor Robert Newton’s depiction of famous pirates like Long John Silver and Blackbeard in popular films from the 1950s. Also pronounced “yarrr” and “arrg,” the term expresses agreement, excitement, and sometimes both.

This article will explain where current impressions of pirates come from, list and explain a few of the common elements of pirate speech as depicted in contemporary popular culture, and conclude with some information about the historical eras and personas that these myths attempt to romanticize. 

Contemporary Impressions of Pirate Speech

Of course, most pirates in history lived in times when there were no electronic recording devices. 

There is no MP3 file of a pirate ancestor saying “arrr,” “yarrr,” “arrg,” or anything else for that matter. There aren’t any paparazzi photos, CCTV tapes, or social media trails from which such details might be forensically reconstructed by a crack team of experts. 

Historically, pirates were also not the most literary of men. Unless on their coin, they were also often on the run from officers of the law. Inevitably, pirates saw no value in leaving behind rich ethnographic descriptions or intimate memoirs detailing accounts of any pillaging, throat-slitting, and all-night rum benders they may have taken part in. 

Of course, calculated guesses can be made by studying the speech and descriptions of contemporary seamen. However, even this is not easy. For one, pirates came from many different places and thrived across centuries, making it highly unlikely they all spoke the same language, let alone argot as Captain Jack’s crew. 

Even “Golden Age” English pirates were as likely to come from Scotland, Ireland, or Wales, as they were from England. They would have had very distinct accents. These practical difficulties have made it hard to assess what pirate speech must have sounded like accurately. [1]

In the absence of evidence, speculation and creative interpretation have been the only options available to creators of fictional works. Johnny Depp famously built his shambolic Sparrow out of friend and fellow degenerate Keith Richards, who he thought best captured the free spirit he wanted to imbue the character with. Like Depp, film actors have always taken their cues from places and people familiar to them. 

But, perhaps, the most significant influence on depictions of pirates has been the movies themselves. The term arrr, for instance, can be the way back to a 1934 adaptation of the famous Robert Louis Stevenson adventure novel Treasure Island

However, it was the English actor, Robert Newton, who placed his stamp the way it is delivered today. [2] In movies like the 1952 adaptation of Treasure Island and 1952’s Blackbeard, Dorset-born Newton imputed to pirate-speak a south-western inflection that the popularity of these movies has ensured stayed with the characters ever since.     

Other Common Pirate Phrases

Over the years, successive books and movies have reinforced existing pirate lore. Along with classic tropes like the skull-and-crossbones flag, buried treasure, and “walking the plank,” typical pirate phrases have become embedded within popular culture. [3] These include:

  • Ahoy – What’s up
  • Matey – Bro
  • Blimey – No way
  • Aye – Uh-huh
  • Aye aye – Yes, Sir
  • A shot across the bow – A literal warning
  • Shiver me timbers – What the…
  • Dead men tell no tales – Passive-aggressive threat
  • Booty – Loot
  • Scupper that – Dump at sea
  • Davy Jones’s Locker – A watery grave
  • Walk the plank – How a pirate dispatches his enemies to Davy Jones’s locker
  • Weigh anchor – Let’s get out of here
  • Yo-ho-ho – Awesome  

The Golden Age of Piracy

The fact that most cultural depictions of pirates are largely fictional doesn’t mean that they have no basis in fact. Piracy has existed among most sea-going populations throughout history, although it is becoming increasingly rare nowadays.

There were pirates in classical Greece and Rome, ancient China, and the Viking Europe of the early middle ages. 

However, most current depictions of pirates take as their starting point the period that is known as the “Golden Age of Piracy.” The term denotes a period between 1650 and 1720 when there were said to be thousands of pirates out at sea at any given time. [4]

Crucially, the era was inaugurated by Columbus’ trans-Atlantic expeditions and the opening up of the Americas to European colonization. 

In subsequent decades and centuries, the great European powers began to exploit the nations of the world they seized control of. The great wealth from these colonies, which was shipped to the major European ports of the day, offered the pirates rich pickings. 

At the same time, social upheaval in the pirates’ home countries made it harder for small farmers to sustain their livelihood and drove many off the land. Businesses grew larger and began dominating smaller trades. The cities were crowded, polluted, and many jobs offered only meager wages. 

Over time many people who lived precarious lives on the margins of society took to seafaring. But life on regular merchant ships could be just as brutal. In these conditions, the lure of easy riches and greater agency tempted many to become pirates. 

However, not all pirates were necessarily outlaws. In the colonial era, many of the European nation-states viewed each other as rivals. They frequently fought wars against each other. Widespread hostility between the different maritime powers meant that they often saw pirates as people they could ally with in taking on their foes.

Pirates were sometimes issued authorization to attack the merchant fleets of a nation’s enemy. These pirates were known as “Privateers.” The “Buccaneers” were privateers from the islands of Hispaniola and Tortuga in the Caribbean who were specifically tasked by their government with attacking Spanish ships.

There were even Muslim pirates, known as “Corsairs,” who operated off the North African coast and only attacked Christian shipping vessels.

Some of the most famous pirates of the era would be immortalized in later fiction. They include Jack Rackham, William Kidd, Henry Morgan, and Edward Teach, also known as “Blackbeard.” 

[1] Source
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[4] Source

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