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Ahoy, me hearties!

As many of you may already know, today is Talk Like a Pirate Day. Since I find the historical subject of piracy quite interesting, specially after reading Pirate Utopias, I would like to bring up the discussion. Pirate Utopias deals mainly with the events in Africa's Mediterranean coastline and particularly two Moroccan cities, Rabat and Salé. At some point Peter Lamborn Wilson, the author, mentions the language pirates must have spoken, arguably a mixture of the many languages of both Europe and Africa — maybe even constituting a pidgin of sorts.

The “piratespeak” people try to reproduce today certainly comes from literature and stereotypes; the real thing was probably a mixture of at least English, French, Italian, Spanish and Arabic. Though it seems to me that there are very few written documents, if any at all, are there any studies on those “pirate languages”? Maybe yer salty sea dogs have seen somethin' about it!

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  • are you enquiring about the piratespeak on popular culture or the actual language that they spoke? My impression is that it's the latter, but the answers seem to address the former.
    – Louis Rhys
    Sep 20 '11 at 3:04
  • @LouisRhys That's not exactly true, actually... My answer addressed the actual language they spoke, but also being related to the pirate-speak in movies or media in general.
    – Alenanno
    Sep 20 '11 at 17:13
  • i think the pirates spoke many different languages instead of just one. Mar 14 '18 at 12:14
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As @Louis Rhys commented, your question seems to be about the actual language that pirates spoke as opposed to the "piratespeak" used today, or at least about how the former led to the latter.

There's not necessarily a connection - there would never really have been 'one language' that pirates spoke, because piracy has been practised for hundreds and hundreds of years by seafaring peoples from all over the world, and they didn't exactly band together into one group. Throughout time, pirates would have spoken languages from the Mediterranean, Scandinavia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, India, East Asia, the rest of Europe, North Africa, North America - pretty much anywhere, really.

But mostly what we think of is the 'golden age of piracy' from around the 1600's to the 1800's, and during this time pirates from different parts of the world would certainly have developed ways to communicate - just not as one consistent pidgin or creole. There is some discussion of it on this old Language Log post, in which it was suggested that modern "piratespeak" could be attributed to Robert Newton in the 1950 movie of Treasure Island. Incidentally, he was from the southwest of England, as are the pirates in The Pirates of Penzance, as mentioned above. So it's fairly plausible that modern "piratespeak" is based on the alleged "Maritime Pidgin English" spoken by pirates who hailed from that part of the UK. Meanwhile, pirates from everywhere else in the world would have been busy developing their own pidgins based on European and African languages, or whatever, depending on where they were from, who they traded with, who they raided, and who they took as slaves or hostages.

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The "piratespeak" that we have come to recognize in the west is due to the opera Pirates of Penzance. What you think of as "the pirate accent" is the accent of Cornwall (where Penzance is located). The coastline of this part of England is rocky and there were a large number of shipwrecks (selling the loot from wrecked ships provided extra income for many locals). According to legends, the number of wrecks was insufficient, so some of the locals would hang a lantern from the neck of a horse or cow, so the up and down motion of the lantern would fool victims into thinking that it was another ship and thus safe to continue sailing in that direction. A number of ships smashing into the rocky coastline during storms was one major motivation for the English to develop more accurate methods for determining longitude (in contrast, latitude is simple to determine with a sextant). The book, or TV series, called Longitude is a good place to start.

"Serious pursuit of a means of fixing longitude began in 1707, after four British frigates ran aground in fog near their home port owing to total east-west disorientation, with the loss of nearly 2,000 men. Sobel recounts, in a horrifying passage, how after the vessels became lost in a week-long mist, a sailor approached Admiral Sir Clowdisley Shovell to declare that a private navigational logbook he had been keeping indicated the squadron was about to founder on the dangerous rocks of Scilly Isles southwest of England. British fleet rules then forbade any study of navigation by non-officers, because navigators had a wizard's status no enlisted personnel were allowed to challenge. Sir Clowdisley immediately had the sailor hanged for questioning the judgment of an Officer. Shortly afterward, his flagship ploughed into the Scilly rocks, the three following ships faithfully smashing in as well.

Source. The Scilly Isles are off the tip of Cornwall.

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    But The Pirates of Penzance, unlike the same writers' Ruddigore, has no instances of Cornish or West Country dialogue in the script!
    – Colin Fine
    Apr 26 '13 at 11:37
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You may be interested in the Lingua Franca ("Frankish Language"), a pidgin used by seafarers from the 11th to 19th centuries, with influences from a number of Mediterranean languages.

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I couldn't find any current particular studies on the Pirates' language, or written documents, but it seems that the Western Country dialects in England are seen as the "closest" example of "pirate speech", also assuming there wasn't just one type of pirate speech (pirates came from many zones, south america, north america, etc).

Like it says there, the "cartoon-like "Ooh arr, me 'earties! Sploice the mainbrace!" talk is very similar" to the accent spoken in that part of England.

What's more, some famous pirates seem to be born in Bristol, such as the pirate Blackbeard. Some movies might have influenced to a further level this "connection", where this accent (probably brought to an extreme exaggeration) was used.

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    How widespread were the Western Country dialects used by the pirates?
    – Louis Rhys
    Sep 20 '11 at 17:16
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    I don't think there is a definite answer to that, considering there really aren't many documents (if any) that we can study. I merely said that those dialects are considered to be the most close example, and not the only example anyway, considering that pirates travelled through the seas and came from other zones as well. Also @Tangurena's answer treats about those zones.
    – Alenanno
    Sep 20 '11 at 17:22

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