This One Guy Is Responsible for What We Think a Pirate Sounds Like

By: Jonathan Strickland  | 
Robert Newton, star of the 1952 movie "Blackbeard, the Pirate," originated the stereotypical "pirate accent." RKO Radio Pictures/Moviepix/Getty Images

In 2002, syndicated columnist and bad song afficionado Dave Barry wrote an article that changed our world. He revealed that John Baur and Mark Summers, two guys who enjoyed playing racquetball, discovered that the game was much more fun if everyone spoke in stereotypical pirate slang. Using criteria that you could call "arbitrary" at best, these two men chose Sept. 19 to be Talk Like a Pirate Day.

A tradition was born.


Chances are, you've seen evidence of Talk Like a Pirate Day. Twitter plays host to hundreds of messages referencing mainsails, poop decks and scurvy dogs.

The word "arr" is considered an acceptable alternative to "yes." But did pirates really talk like that?

The answer is "not really." Our concept of piratical speech stems mainly from a series of memorable performances by the actor Robert Newton. He appeared in several films and TV shows as a pirate, playing such characters as Long John Silver in a Disney adaptation of "Treasure Island" and the dreaded Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard in "Blackbeard, the Pirate." You can hear Newton in the clip below:

Newton was born in Dorset, England. Dorset is in the West Country, the southwest corner of Britain. The dialect in that region contains many of the elements we associate with pirate speech. For example, it's common to hear a hard "r" in words spoken by people from the West Country.

Newton's performances became iconic. It didn't take long before his West Country accent became the de facto pirate speech. Scholars, however, don't think his portrayal was particularly accurate.

It's hard to be certain, though. We don't have many historical accounts of actual pirate speech. The Golden Age of Piracy predates recordings by more than a century. Pirates also didn't have a habit of writing much down. Many were likely illiterate. Most of those who did write were educated before turning to a roguish lifestyle, so their accounts aren't much different from those of other educated people at the time.

It might be more appropriate to call Sept. 19 "Talk Like Robert Newton Day." But while it may not be historically accurate to yell "shiver me timbers" or "walk the plank," it's still fun. Particularly if you're playing racquetball.