Arrrrr, Here There Be Pirates! Pirate Lore as Cultural Literacy

Ahoy, me hearties! Yaarrrrrrr, I’ve not seen yer faces fer awhile on the high seas. Alas, I’ve been locked up in the bilge, teachin foreign tongues to some green landlubbers.  But t’night I be scribblin in me Captain’s log, so pillage yerself some grog and let some other scallywag swab the deck fer now.

Talk Like A Pirate Day
Illustration by Ghergich & Co.

…So today, in honour of “International Talk Like A Pirate Day,” I decided to teach a bit of pirate lingo to my students at the end of class.  I had just finished detailing the myriad uses of “Arrrr” when one of them asked me, “What language is this?”

They are in my class to learn English, of course, so I assured them, “It’s English… Pirate English.” I explained that it’s like a form of slang, reserved for pirates, of course, and people who want to talk like pirates. Not yet content with my answer, they inquired further, “But why do you know this? How did you learn it?”

Both fair questions, I thought to meself… err, myself… (sorry, it’s hard to stop once I’ve started). Undoubtedly to them, it must seem like a rather useless set of linguistic knowledge. Which admittedly it is, but that doesn’t mean I went out of my way to learn it. I didn’t take a class in pirate literature or something (actually, can I?), I just absorbed it. I explained to them that, like Japanese kids have been brought up on stories of the exploits of samurai, shogun, ninjas and anything by Miyazaki, pirates and all of the lore associated with them are something that has been with me since before I can remember.

Me pirate threads of yore
Me pirate threads of yore

Phrases like “aye aye,” “walk the plank,” and “shiver me timbers” are as familiar to me as any normative English expression (albeit that their socially appropriate usage is much more situationally specific). And while the lingo typically associated with pop culture franchises like Star Trek or Lord of the Rings may still be used primarily by fans from within certain geek subcultures, I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to say that pirate lore is more generally understood by the Western (North American?) population at large. Right up there with “please, sir, I want some more” and “to be or not to be, that is the question,” I daresay that through sheer exposure, pirate lingo makes up (albeit a very small) part of the Western consciousness.

These ideas are inherently interesting to me because, as a learner/educator of languages and cultures, I am constantly caught off guard by pop-culture-originated references my Japanese students or friends have no hope of understanding, and am continuously wondering what I am missing out on with my near-complete lack of awareness about the contents of their pop culture roots.  I have students that love sci-fi but have never seen Star Trek, friends that love fantasy but have never heard of hobbits. My Japanese and Japan-enthusiast friends constantly rave about the mastermind Miyazaki’s famous films, but I’ve only recently got around to watching a couple of them for the first time.

These be the Straw Hat Pirates, the main crew on One Piece
These scallywags be the Straw Hat Pirates, the main crew on One Piece

Recently Japan has ventured into the realm of pirate fantasy, themselves. The popular manga and anime “One Piece” is all about a group of young pirates who set off around the world to follow their dreams. That it is a tale of adventure may be the only similarity, though: the series seems quite removed from Western renditions of pirate lore, and it echoes mainstream Japanese manga storytelling (battles where everyone explains what techniques they’re doing as they go, for example, or where their most important values boil down to protecting their friends). That being said, my anime and manga repertoire is almost as limited as my Miyazaki one, so take my observations in that regard with a grain of salt.

Salt. Which reminds me… Ye salt-blubbin sea dogs still readin this? The winds be a’changin, so get ye to the decks and heave to ‘fore I cast ye into Davy Jones’ Locker!

What do ye think? Can ye speak pirate? Is pirate lore as intrinsic to the North American cultural psyche as methinks, or has the scurvy got to me head? What about Europe and other lands? What other narratives of pop culture do you think resonate with people on a large scale? Who would win in a fight, pirates, ninjas, or ninja-pirates?

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3 thoughts on “Arrrrr, Here There Be Pirates! Pirate Lore as Cultural Literacy

  1. And the funny thing is the “pirates of the Caribbean” NEVER spoke that like, unless they happened to come from the West Country and speak like the stereotypical English farmer. (Think Hagrid.) Blackbeard supposedly came from the West Country, as did the character Long John Silver from ‘Treasure Island’ and so Robert Newton (the most famous and influential actor to play those parts in films) used the accent, coming from there himself, and hence the “pirate accent” was born. The modern mythology that’s sprung up around pirates is truly awesome.

  2. I never thought that people wouldn’t know what a pirate accent was! Pirate lore is definitely alive across Australia, but now I am curious as to whether my Chinese and Japanese colleagues would know about it. I will have to do an experiment next talk like a pirate day seeing as though I have missed this one… I heard that the pirate accent was just made up in films, and then more and more films used it so now that is how we think pirates talk. I just confirmed on Wikipedia, the first pirate accent was used in 1934 in Treasure Island. It wouldn’t be all that sneaky though if they really had spoken like that, everyone could tell they were pirates right away!

    1. Good to know Australia is in on piratey things! I don’t think you necessarily have to wait until Talk Like A Pirate Day to break out the accent, it’s a good excuse to be sure, but I don’t think you should let that stop you from using it any other time of year if the moment calls for it! 😉

      I’m gonna be checking out a theatre rendition of Treasue Island in a few weeks, so I’m happy to know that’s where the pirate accent started. Guess I’ll have to take notes! 🙂

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