September 22, 2018

The Linguistics of Pirate Talk

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This was originally published on the University of Warwick Knowledge Centre on 18 Sept. 2018. I have modified it slightly from the form that appeared there, and have changed the title. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY 4.0)

International Talk Like A Pirate Day is, of course, silly. No one in history has ever, based on their adopting a sea-going profession, talked like Robert Newton's Long John Silver in Tresaure Island. The people we think of when we talk about “pirates” would’ve talked mostly like the people they grew up around, just like the rest of us do. Many of them wouldn’t have spoken English. And real pirates (historical or present-day), aren’t especially good people to imitate. Pirates were and are brutal criminals. Nothing kitschy about that. So there’s not much to be said for the “pirates” part of International Talk Like a Pirate Day.

But the “talk” part is interesting.

The ideas we have about Pirate Talk have much more to do with facts about language than facts about pirates. So, pretending that pirates really existed in the Treasure Island sense, here are four rules to follow on Talk Like A Pirate Day, and the linguistic facts behind those rules.

Rule 1. Say ye instead of you

(1a) Pirate Talk: Ye are a bunch of landlubbers.

(1b) Standard English: You are a bunch of landlubbers.

In Old English, ye was a second-person plural pronoun, distinct from the second-person singular pronoun thou. In Middle English, ye disappeared in most dialects of Modern English, though a few dialects retained it for some time. Some Irish English speakers today distinguish between you for second-person singular and ye for second-person plural.

If pirates say ye, then, they may be following a grammatical rule that distinguishes between addressing one person and addressing multiple people. To play it safe, celebrants of Talk Like a Pirate Day should probably use ye only when addressing groups, or risk lashes.

This rule actually makes the pronoun system of Pirate Talk more complex than the pronoun system of standard English, which now has only you. Pirate Talk would join many “non-standard” varieties of English that have supplemented the language by adding a second-person plural pronoun: yall in the American South and in African American English, yous in Scotland and Ireland, and you lot in Britain. In every case, the non-standard (often socially stigmatised) variety follows a more complex and precise set of grammatical rules than standard English.

Rule 2. Say be rather than am, are, and is

(2a) Pirate Talk: The scurvy dog be walking the plank.

(2b) Standard English: The scurvy dog is walking the plank.

Many dialects of English allow the plain form of the verb be to occur where standard English requires the verb to be inflected to am, are, or is. This feature is closely associated with African American English in the United States, and there are examples from Irish English. (See Stan Carey’s Sentence First blog).

The rules for this feature vary across dialects, but there’s a general characteristic that the inflected verb is in (2b) describes an event that is taking place currently, while the plain verb be in (2a) indicates an event that occurs continually or repeatedly. Linguists sometimes refer to this feature as “habitual-be.”

Dialects that allow habitual-be address a shortcoming of standard English. While many languages mark a grammatical distinction between one-off and habitual events, standard English does not.

So, if pirates are following the same rule as speakers of a number of other dialects of English, Pirate Talk might include a habitual-be rule in sentences like (2a). In doing so, pirates are adding grammatical complexity and semantic nuance where standard English lacks it.

If that’s the case, it should be noted that a pirate would probably never actually say sentence (2a), since a scurvy dog could walk a plank only once. On the other hand, we’d be on safe ground with a sentence like, “The scurvy crew be sailing the seven seas,” which could happen habitually.

Rule 3. Drop your “g”s

(3a) Pirate Talk: The captain is keelhaulin’ scallywags.

(3b) Standard English: The captain is keelhauling scallywags.

Linguists represent the sounds at the ends of the progressive verb keelhaulin’ and keelhauling with the symbols [n] and [ŋ], respectively. Both sounds are formed by diverting air through the nasal passage. But the [n] sound is formed by raising the tip of the tongue to the alveolar ridge just above the upper teeth to divert air, while the [ŋ] sound is formed by raising the body of the tongue to the velum in the back of the mouth.

In standard English, there’s actually no [g] sound at all in the ending spelled -ing. So really the rule for Talk Like A Pirate Day should be “use alveolar [n] in place of velar [ŋ]".

But nearly all English speakers alternate between these two pronunciations. This alternation has been part of English for roughly a millennium. Today, English speakers follow a complex set of grammatical and social rules in choosing to say either [n] or [ŋ]. For instance, speakers are more likely to use [n] with a progressive verb (“He’s keelhauling scallywags”) than with a gerund (‘the keelhauling of scallywags.”) English speakers also usually associate the [ŋ] pronunciation with formal, careful, and “proper” speech, while [n] is associated with casual, relaxed, and “solidarity” speech.

Like most English speakers, pirates won’t know they’re following sophisticated grammatical rules when they vary between alveolar [n] and velar [ŋ]. But there is good reason to think that pirates would be conscious of the social rules. After all, if you’re trying to embody pirateness, it’s desirable to avoid linguistic variants that may expose non-buccaneering qualities like formality, carefulness, and properness. The [n] of Pirate Talk could be an important strategy for pirates to construct their pirate identities.

Rule 4. Say arrrrr

In a blog entry on Language Log, Mark Liberman credits Roger Depledge with attributing the ubiquitous pirate 'arrr' to actor Robert Newton in the 1950 movie version of Treasure Island. Ben T. Smith further cites British re-enactment group, Bonaventure, for noting that Newton was from Dorset and that the real Blackbeard was from Bristol, so Newton might have tried to use a dialect associated with Southwest England.

Regional accents in southwest England retained the “r”-sound for a long time after accents associated with London began deleting “r” at the end of words and before consonants (turning the London arrr into plain old ah, and "me hearty" into something like "me hotty"). So, for a long time, a pirate’s arrr could have marked them as being from Devon, Cornwall, and other r-pronouncing places.

Because many Englishes (outside of North America, at least) have followed the London pattern to become r-less, nowadays arrr probably can’t differentiate between regional accents of British English. However, arrr is still a good shorthand way to indicate a person is using Pirate Talk. When people begin to consciously associate a language variety with a specific group of people--a process that sociolinguists refer to as “enregisterment”--it’s typical for a particular linguistic feature to take on social meaning as an indicator of the variety. This has happened for bostin’ in Brummie English and 'ello govna in old stereotypes of Cockney.

Pirate Talk has undergone enregisterment. And the “r”-sound, which was once a way to mark regional dialects of English, now functions as a shorthand way to indicate that a person is participating in that enregistered variety.

“Proper” Pirate Talk

Of course Pirate Talk is not a real variety of English. But if it were, it’s clear that speakers of Pirate Talk, like all speakers of all language varieties, would be unconsciously following an extremely sophisticated set of grammatical rules. Furthermore, like speakers of most stigmatized dialects of English, Pirate Talk would often add grammatical and communicative complexity and precision where standard English lacks it.

Pirate Talk would also be doing a lot of social work, as its speakers would constantly choose among linguistic variants as part of a range of practices to actively construct identity. All native speakers of all language varieties constantly navigate competing linguistic variants in this way to shape the personae they present to the world.

In this sense, while Talk Like a Pirate Day is silly, we all talk like “pirates” every day. Our remarkable linguistic abilities, both grammatically and socially, are definitely worth celebrating.

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