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Opinion: Did pirates really talk like that? Arrrguably, no.

Roberto Pfeil

Next Tuesday, Sept. 19, is International Talk Like a Pirate Day, and landlubbers and scallywags amongst ye will be glad I'm not on the air then. I talks like a salty dog all day I does.

Talk Like a Pirate Day was created by John Baur and Mark Summers, then of Albany, Oregon, who were playing racquetball when one of them went down and shouted, "Arrr!" and the holiday idea sprang into their minds. Dave Barry, the syndicated humor columnist, publicized their solemn observance in 2002, and soon timbers shivered across the country.

Some scurvy dogs and bilge-suckers have wondered in recent years: how authentic is this picturesque rendition of pirate speech?

"It's far from authentic," Molly Babel, Associate Professor of Arts and Linguistics at the University of British Columbia told us. "But there are some linguistic points that carry through."

Professor Babel told us many original pirates were recruited from southwest England, where "arrr!" was a kind of expression like the "eh?" of Canadians. As pirates joined from all over the sea-faring world, Maritime Pidgin English, derived from the West Country, became a kind of common language for what she calls, "cross-language pirate contact."

That's a scholarly phrase for pillaging and plundering.

Professor Babel says much of our idea of how pirates spoke traces back to the 1950 RKO-British Disney film of Treasure Island. Robert Newton, a British actor from the West Country, played Long John Silver, with his finest theatrical West Country accent. Other on-set pirates, many also from southwest England, joined in. Robert Newton would go on to play Long John Silver in other films, as well as Bluebeard and other pirates. He often sported a rummy-twinkle in his eye, and parrot on his shoulder.

Professor Babel (an irresistible name for a linguistics professor, by the way) believes that pirate talk—or Maritime Pidgin English, if you prefer—is still imitated and celebrated by landlubbers like me, "because it's expressive, engaging, and colorful." These are vital signs of language that can communicate, not just regurgitate.

Avast - put your ears around some of the corporate and techno-phrases we so often hear today. What's a more striking turn of phrase? Limited bandwidth--or Yo ho ho, me hearties? Inflection point—or What hornswaggle!? Would you rather bend an elbow with someone who says paradigm shift—or Shiver Me Timbers?

What say ye, me buckos? Arrrrrrrrr!

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.