If any number of people were asked to imagine a pirate, they would most likely conjure up a stereotypical image of a thug with an eyepatch and a wooden leg who wields a cutlass, shows off a parrot, drinks huge quantities of rum, and speaks in a strange accent. This memorable accent is popularly known as the “pirate accent,” renowned for its strong and pronounced “r” sound, as in “yarrr” or “arrrr.”
The popularity of this accent began in the late 1940s and the 1950s, centuries after the careers of the most famous pirates who roamed the seas. Was it the popularity of pirate movies? Such films were popular in the early decades of the cinema, it’s true, but there was no standardized accent used by on-screen pirates. For example, the 1934 adaption of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island features a standard American accent with no special “pirate” pronunciation.
The special pronunciation and stereotypical expressions connected to pirates originate with the pirate movies starring Robert Newton, who has become the “patron saint” of the annual International Talk Like a Pirate Day.
When film director Byron Haskin decided to revisit the story of Treasure Island and produce a new version in 1950, he cast Newton in it, and for the first time, he used the accent while playing probably his most memorable role, that of Long John Silver.
The accent enjoyed by audiences and Newton continued to use it as he reprised the pirate character, starring as Long John Silver for the TV series which aired in 1956 and 1957, The Adventures of John Silver. He also used the pirate accent in the 1952 film Blackbeard the Pirate. Since then, popular culture cannot imagine pirates speaking any other way.
The accent Newton used was, in fact, an exaggerated version of his native accent. He was raised in Dorset, England, not far from Bristol, so he was familiar with the west country farmer’s accent. He thought his version of this accent would bring additional flair to the already popular pirate flicks, and he employed it with great success.
However, Newton’s use of the accent is not necessarily inaccurate. This can be regarded as a historical coincidence. During the so-called Golden Age of Piracy, which gained momentum during the late 1600s and the early 1700s, many pirates came from the region where Newton was born. This should come as no surprise, especially if we bear in mind that during this period, there were several major trading posts in the southwest of England, such as Bristol and Plymouth. This region was the link to the West Indies.
The famed Blackbeard for one was likely born in Bristol in 1580, and his real name was Edward Teach. During his lucrative days as a pirate, he managed a crew of about 400 and sailed a huge vessel known as Queen Anne’s Revenge that previously transported slaves. Blackbeard and his crew would go down in history for capturing and emptying over 20 other ships of any valuables.
William Dampier, another notable seafarer, is greatly remembered for what it means to be an incompetent commander of a ship, for he was nearly always drunk. He was also born close to Bristol, in Somerset. Despite that, he is remembered also for his great intellectual capabilities and perfect skills in navigating.
There are more pirate figures such as Henry Avery, Sam Bellamy, and Captain Christopher Condent, who all come from the County of Devon. Newton, therefore, possibly revived the genuine historical accent of pirates.
Of course, England was not the sole territory that exported pirate figures to the world. We cannot exclude the fact that plenty other pirates originated from elsewhere, be that Wales, Ireland, Holland, or Greece. Which would mean that pirate accent was likely diverse, and it would have had some variants, depending on where the notorious seafarers came from.