In a world in which Genghis Khan’s birthday is an official holiday (in Mongolia, on November 14th), why shouldn’t we celebrate “Talk Like a Pirate Day”? Once again it’s September 19th, so it’s time to go around saying, “Arrrr, matey!” and “Avast, ye scurvy dog!” and then grinning like a fool. Some people even do it when they’re still sober.
The holiday was thought up by two guys (they insist upon being called “guys”) in Oregon named John Baur and Mark Summers, who just decided that talking like a pirate was funny and chose a pretty much random day in 1995 to launch yet another excuse for a themed bar crawl, more or less. It soon led to a web site (because, after all, that was why the Internet was invented and developed). When humorist/columnist Dave Barry was lured into writing about it in 2002, the holiday went beyond a local joke and was even picked up in other countries (see the pirate-linguistic web sites for Great Britain and the Netherlands) and reports of parties in such places as Botswana and Nuuk, Greenland. Which just goes to show… well, something. I’m not sure, at this point.
The thing is, we really don’t know how pirates talked, what with sound recording equipment being notoriously unreliable in the 17th century, during the heyday of what we usually think of when we talk about pirates. (You know, the fun kind in the movies, forgetting that they were murderous bastards, like the ones who still follow the trade off the coast of Somalia and the Malacca Strait in Southeast Asia.) In the golden age of pirate movies, from the 1930s through the 1950s, it was the actor Robert Newton’s portrayal of such pirates as Long John Silver and John Teach (Blackbeard) that set the standard of what is now accepted as the “authentic” pattern of how pirates talked. Newton was born in Dorset, where the maritime tradition goes back for centuries. Many of the sailors from that region were certainly smugglers and some, like Teach himself, born in Bristol, became pirates. So, Newton’s exaggerated West Country accent used in his movies may actually be fairly authentic for the English branch of pirates.
All of this is over-thinking the whole silly holiday. Belay that book-larnin’ ye four-eyed yellow dog! Instead, a quick transcription (from memory, so it may be a little inaccurate) of one of the great scenes in the movie Blackbeard (1952):
Blackbeard [in the captain’s cabin as captured Edwina Mansfield, played by Linda Darnell, enters]: Arrr… what be your name, missy?
Mansfield [surprised, raising her hand to her throat]: Blackbeard!
Blackbeard: No, that be my name. What be yourn?