Thursday, October 8, 2009

Why do pirates always say "Arrr"?

Have you noticed the way that pirates talk? Not real pirates, of course, but the ones we see representing piracy in film and on TV - especially when they're in a 'lone pirate on a kids' show' situation. You see variation when you get lots of pirates together, like in Peter Pan or Pirates of the Carribean - but when you see just one pirate character, there's a very specific way that he (or she) will typically talk. It's the way Captain Feathersword talks on the Wiggles show, the way Captain Scallawag talks in Dragon Tales, or the way Teacher Susie imitates pirates in "Sid the Science Kid." Even Dola in the film Castle in the Sky does a bit of it. It's the source of that joke my kids like: "What's a pirate's favorite letter?" "Arrrr!"

I was listening to it the other day and I realized that the closest real world accent it resembles (to my ear) is Irish. Of course, it's not really Irish, just a weird version of it. But that got me thinking.

Was there ever a real Irish pirate who inadvertently bequeathed his accent to pirate stereotypes everywhere?

The assignment of specific dialects to particular types of characters is not restricted to pirates, either. I remember recently seeing the Italian chefs from Lady and the Tramp and thinking, "Wow, that was stereotypical!" But then I watched a few episodes of the children's cartoon, Curious George, and I realized that Italian chefs are still given broad Italian accents. I'll give the Wiggles credit here - one of the members of the dance troupe is Italian, and while he is a chef, he's actually, really Italian. He even speaks Italian on the show! Now, that's refreshing.

When I watched the newest Star Trek movie I was thrilled by the fact that they chose people with real accents. Scotty was British, and Chekov had an actual Russian accent. Wow! If you're going to retain those roles as they always have been, that's definitely the way to go. At least for the adult crowd.

Now, having said, "for the adult crowd," of course I can't leave it there. Does it take sophistication to understand that people are different, and speak differently? I don't think so. Children have a much better ear for language differences than we do, so I can't help wondering why it's okay to assign dialects to roles the way we do in children's shows.

When you're writing in science fiction and fantasy, and you want to use dialects, be careful. Don't fall into the pattern of accessing an available stereotype if you can help it. Especially if your characters aren't on an Earth-related world, think through what you want to do, and try to come up with something different. If you must use a dialect, try to find an actual speaker of that dialect to consult with you - or you may end up seriously offending someone.

Maybe we keep these things in kids shows because they don't know any better and can't be offended. But in an age of increased awareness of diversity, I'm surprised in some ways that we can't do better.

On the other hand.

I generally like to try to keep an anthropologist's view - that is to say, a more distant and uncommitted view - on most questions like this. So here's the other side of the coin: if we go all the way and try portray characters with real world cultures, what will happen to the legends, and the spirit of all the beloved characters who do have these more biased characteristics? Will they suddenly be maligned for the - largely loving - spirit in which they created? That would be a terrible shame.

A colorful character who has a foreign dialect needn't be an ugly stereotype. It's important to remember that. I can easily imagine for example placing a cook with a French accent - another very common stereotype - into a modern work. Successfully even, so long as that character was well-integrated and had more to him (or her!) than just an accent to laugh at.

When we write, we're placing ourselves into the grand history of storytelling. I admit I'd like to see the new focus on diversity reach a bit more thoroughly into our modern media products. But I still love the classics, and I think they should be enjoyed as products of their time - neither simply lauded as great works and the way things must be done, nor disparaged for "old-fashioned" ideas.

I wonder how our current views will be seen a hundred years from now - and whether pirates will still say, "arr!"


  1. I do believe that the 'Arrr' comes from English as spoken by the lower classes of the day in the south of England where a number of ports were. Proximity to the ports led many a man and boy voluntarily and involuntarily to live on the sea.

  2. Thanks, anonymous, for locating a specific region that is more specific than my (admittedly vague) guess at the origin of that pirate accent. I'm sure a lot of people ended up on ships from that region - in various ways, some quite unpleasant.

  3. I read once that the stereotypical pirate accent came from one of the old movie versions of Treasure Island - the actor who played Long John Silver had that West Country accent and it caught on.

  4. I could believe that had something to do with it, especially since Treasure Island is such a classic. I can't help remembering how Coca Cola was the force that solidified Santa Claus as wearing red.

  5. Aarr, me lassie, why you be thinking me accent is stererotypical?

    I will also admit that the accents of the Italian chefs hereabouts generally are Italian; though oddly, few of the Italians who are not chefs sport them. The Greeks who run the diners - and you will not find a diner here that is not Greek-run - also have Greek accents. Maybe it's a generational thing.

    As for the kids, methinks it is that everything for the kids is broader. Look at the exaggerated reactions of the dwarves to finding Snow White in their beds. Tip-toeing is always high-stepped. The coyote always runs a few feet past the cliff edge. Subtle ain't in it.

  6. Ah, Mr. Flynn, I would love to hear your accent and I'm sure it's marvelous (I've always enjoyed Irish accents). I think my problem resides with badly imitated or exaggerated accents. You're probably right on the money with that thing about exaggerating for kids. I can't help wondering if that's really necessary for their enjoyment... I personally have a tough time with it.

  7. I've been poking around on Wikipedia, so take this with a grain of salt... but surely it can't be a coincidence that Penzance is found in the West Country!

  8. FWIW it's *easier* to do a broader accent than a more mild one. I've done a lot of dialect work on stage, and you often start with something overdone and work toward something milder. Also, these kind of portrayals only make a few of the most recognizable shifts and keep the rest.


  9. Tracing common and/or stereotypical accents can be fascinating, and in at least one case, politically explosive.

    Tom Wolfe did some fascinating research for his novel "The Right Stuff." You know how airline pilots will speak in a laconic, unflappable, mid-American sort of tone? You could call it a distinct accent, I think.

    As in: "Ladies and gentlemen, the starboard wing has fallen off, and this presents a few minor difficulties. We've got the flaps adjusted, and will make an emergency landing at Sioux Falls in about ten minutes. Beverage service will be delayed, and please brace for impact."

    Wolfe traced all this to the person of Chuck Yeager. He was the ultimate alpha male at (what became) Edwards Air Force Base, when the Bell X-1 broke the sound barrier, and onwards. He's from West Virginia, is a very calm guy, and his accent and manner was distinct on the military radio bands.
    Seems the other military test pilots quickly adopted his style, and then military pilots overall, then soon enough, civilian airline pilots. (In plenty of cases, the very same individuals.)

    Hmm . . .
    Pirates did not have radios, but could something like that have occurred, in British ports?

  10. The one who mentioned the old movie version of Treasure Island was probably the closest to the answer. But, you have to go further. Robert Louis Stevenson went to the Mark Twain school of dialog writing, and the accent that we're familiar with is very clear throughout all of Long John Silver's speech in the book.

  11. Speaking of Mark Twain, I understand that he criticized his contemporary reporter-and-author Bret Harte for the man's portrayal of strong accents among the 49'ers in the Gold Rush mining camps.

    Don't know what I mean? Read "The Luck of Roaring Camp" and focus on the spoken accents -- not 'pirate talk' but equally distinctive. (I'm sure the full text is available on line.)

    Was this a real distinction, or did Harte embellish?
    (Did Stevenson as well?)