Master William Mayhem, aka Capt William The Pirate
The archetypal pirate grunt “Arrr! (alternatively “Yarrr!” and “Arg!”) is widely attributed to actor Robert Newton, who portrayed Long John Silver in Disney’s Treasure Island (1950); the Australian film, Long John Silver (1954); and Blackbeard (1952), though the reference first appeared in fiction as early as 1934 in an earlier version of the film, Treasure Island, and in early pirate novels by English author Jeffery Farnol.
However, actor Newton was born in Dorset and educated in Cornwall. His native West Country dialect was a heavy influence in his portrayal of Long John Silver and Blackbeard, which some contend is the origin of the standard “pirate accent”. The rolling “rrr” has also been associated with pirates because of the location of major ports in the West Country of England, which drew labor from the surrounding countryside. West Country speech in general and Cornish speech in particular may have been major influences on a generalized British nautical speech. Historically, many of the men in this region took to seafaring, even from Elizabethan days, when British ships began to prey upon Spanish plate fleets as buccaneers and privateers.
While their primary homeland may have been Cornwall and the West of England, early pirates were recruited and originated from everywhere–the need for democracy and making a decent living was alive even then among people often considered thieves–including non-Anglophone countries. It’s very likely then, that on any pirate ship there was a variety of dialects, and colloquialisms would have varied greatly from one ship to another.
See also Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta, The Pirates of Penzance, set in Cornwall. The play did not initially use the phrase “arrr”, but pirates used words with a lot of rrr’s such as “Hurrah” and “pour the pirate sherry”.
The word “yar” itself has nautical roots; the Dictionary of English Nautical Language lists it–and its variant “yare”–as being pronounced “yahr”, which is defined as a boat that is easy to handle. The word “argh” also has uses unrelated to pirates; it and its variant “arg” have a traceable etymology as an interjection showing fear or frustration. A Glossary of North Country Words, in Use: With Their Etymology (1829), lists “Arr” as a mark or scar made by a wound (of which pirates had many), and “Harr” (under “Hare” and derived from the older Saxon “Har”) meaning a mist or fog.
In consultation with our archaeology and research teams, we added a Hollywood component to the museum. The connection between early piracy and dialects to Hollywood and public perception of pirates cannot be denied, and to ignore it and chalk it up as “misleading” would truly be remiss of us.
The Hollywood Pirates exhibit features movie memorabilia from the likes of Captain Blood (1935) and the Pirates of the Caribbean series as well as a rare first edition of R.L. Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1889) and a replica of the chest used by American illustrator and author Howard Pyle to create reenactment pirate paintings.
Permission to reprint from St Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum
Tuesday, 22 May 2012
“Now and then we had a hope that if we lived and were good, God would permit us to be pirates” – Mark Twain
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