September 19, 2005


Well, it's Type Talk Like a Pirate Day again, time to re-post the Corsair Ergonomic Keyboard, so useful for piratical bloggers:

I mentioned last year that I don't know who deserves the credit for the invention of this keyboard. No one has claimed it yet, so if you know anything about its history, drop me a line.

I'd also like to ask a more linguistic question: where did all the "pirates say arrr" stuff come from, anyhow? Is it some sort of folk-stereotype about pirates coming from r-ful parts of the British Isles? Was it launched by some influential book or movie that featured an especially rhotic buccaneer?

It's not from (the book) Treasure Island, as far as I can tell. The pirate who shows up in the first paragraph is stereotyped enough:

I remember him as if it were yesterday, as he came plodding to the inn door, his sea-chest following behind him in a hand- barrow -- a tall, strong, heavy, nut-brown man, his tarry pigtail falling over the shoulder of his soiled blue coat, his hands ragged and scarred, with black, broken nails, and the sabre cut across one cheek, a dirty, livid white. I remember him looking round the cover and whistling to himself as he did so, and then breaking out in that old sea-song that he sang so often afterwards:

"Fifteen men on the dead man's chest --
Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!"

in the high, old tottering voice that seemed to have been tuned and broken at the capstan bars. Then he rapped on the door with a bit of stick like a handspike that he carried, and when my father appeared, called roughly for a glass of rum. This, when it was brought to him, he drank slowly, like a connoisseur, lingering on the taste and still looking about him at the cliffs and up at our signboard.

"This is a handy cove," says he at length; "and a pleasant sittyated grog-shop. Much company, mate?"

but to go with the tarry pigtail and the old sea-song, there's nary an extra [r] even hinted at. Nor, on a quick skim, are the rest of the book's pirates notably rhotic. If you know the answer, tell me about it and I'll post it. The best solution to this philological puzzle will win a lifetime subscription to Language Log.

[Not an explanation, but a connection -- the 6th of 30 stories in 30 days (about working in a bookstore) by Andrea Siegel, posted by Andrew Gelman at Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science:

6. A woman comes up to me. "R?" she asks.
I type it in: "R". "R?" I ask helpfully, inviting the next letter. She looks at the screen. "No no no no no. Rrrrrr," she says.
"Rrrrr," I type in.
"No no no no."
I give up. I hand her a pen and piece of paper.
She writes, "Art." She's French.
I point to the Art section.

Now if pirates were really French aesthetes...
Naw. ]

[Here's the real answer! (Or at least the first step.) I thought it had something to do with Treasure Island, and it did. But it was Robert Newton in the 1950 movie version. A short bio of Newton is here. Roger Depledge, the first to send in this information, wins a lifetime subscription to Language Log.

But wait, there are more prizes to be won! The next question: what was Newton's model for the rrrr business? A regional dialect? A music hall stereotype? Or was it sheer alcohol-fueled phonetic invention? ]

[Joe Gordon suggests that perhaps Newton's R was an early entrant in Geoff Pullum's Shortest Sentence of the Year contest. ]

[Geoffrey Nathan emailed:

I've always assumed (and I recall reading it somewhere, when I was a graduate student) that many pirates (such as those of Penzance, for example--those who plough the sea), originated in the Southwest of England, which is, of course, r-ful, and in fact has always seemed to me to be somewhat more hyperaticulatedly r-ry than American r-fulness.

The theory I originally heard was that Maritime Pidgin English (early nineteenth century version) was based on that area. Stereotypical pirate talk (including invariant 'be' for all copulas, for example) was a fossilized survivor of the Pidgin ('That be the white whale, me hearty'). I remember reading (or perhaps hearing about this when I was exposed to some version of the monogenesis theory of the origins of creoles.

Seems at least plausible, and I like the idea of archeological vestiges of Maritime Pidgin English still around in folk culture.

I think Geoffrey also wins a lifetime subscription to Language Log. And for what it's worth, Robert Newtown apparently hailed from Shaftesbury in Dorset. I think that "maritime pidgin English" was more of a 17th and 18th century development, but maybe its r-fulness was well established among buccaneers by the time that Stevenson wrote about. ]

[And here's more on "Maritime Pidgin English" (a term apparently coined by J.L. Dillard) and its role in the history of pirates and of all the rest of us, from an article by Erin Mackie, "Welcome the Outlaw: Pirates, Maroons and Caribbean Countercultures", Cultural Critique 59—Spring 2005.

... as the linguist J. L. Dillard (1975) has shown, the British ship had its own language, one it shared with the coastal regions of England, Africa, the Caribbean, and North America.

The extensive association among sailors and the African peoples they transported, worked with, and were in casual contact with, brought with it specific “exotic” or “savage” forms of transatlantic language. Cultural and linguistic contact took place in and between such cosmopolitan polyglot harbors as London, Bridgeton, Kingston, Charleston, New Orleans, Boston, Philadelphia, and coastal African factory settlements such as Bonny, Whydah, Cabinda, and Goree. A present-day cultural historian describes the linguistic situation in early eighteenth-century Jamaica as one “not of diglossia, triglossia, or even heteroglossia but of panglossia, a state of ‘generalized multilingualism,’” from which Creole emerges as the primary, if despised, language of the island. Communication in the pan- Atlantic world did not take place in standard English (or any European language), but rather in pidgins and Creoles concocted out of European and African languages. J. L. Dillard has documented how “the Maritime Pidgin English, transmitted to West Africans in the slave trade and heavily influenced by West African languages, became the English Creole of the plantations from Nova Scotia to Surinam” (All-American English, 3–76; Black English 73–185). Sailors, slaves, and those populations of whites who owned and were raised by slaves (from whom they learned this language that set them off, to no advantage, from the English) all spoke this maritime English. Sailors, naturally, were among the largest groups of speakers.

Pirates’ language is distinguishable from that of the generality of sailors mostly by its blasphemy and its self-naming practices that, like the skeletons and hourglasses on the Jolly Rogers, stressed the irreverent, oppositional, radically autonomous, do-or-die ethic that controlled pirate identity. Such an ethic is apparent in the names pirates gave their ships: “Batchelor’s Delight, Liberty, Night Rambler, Queen Anne’s Revenge, Cour Valant, Scowerer, Flying Dragon, Most Holy Trinity, Happy Delivery, Bravo, Black Joke, and Blessing.”

The most interesting thing, if you ask me, is how "the irreverent, oppositional, radically autonomous, do-or-die ethic that controlled pirate identity" winds up as the theme of family rides at Disneyland parks. Who's subverting who? ]

[Update 9/23/2005: Ann Parker writes:

I've just been reading "Big Chief Elizabeth" by Giles Milton, which reminded me that Sir Walter Raleigh was from Devon (and had a pronounced Devonshire accent) and most of the sailors recruited for early voyages to America were from the West Country (SW England). Most pirates of British origin would thus have had this distinctive accent.

As for 'arr' itself, any Brit can tell you it is West Country dialect for 'yes' :)

Ah. But what's the difference then between arr and yarr?]

Posted by Mark Liberman at September 19, 2005 08:58 AM