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Heave to, ye scurvy swab

Aye, today be International Talk Like a Pirate Day, matey. And if it be not to yer liking, I’ll cut out yer liver and roast it on a green stick, I will, I will, arrrrrrrrrrr.

The day has received repeated attention from the professionals at Language Log, who ferreted out in 2005 that the rrrr-ness convention of contemporary imitations of pirate speech derives from Robert Newton’s performance in the 1950 movie version of Treasure Island, and may well have its roots in the heavily rhotic* pronunciations of Britain’s southwest coast. Now you know.

In a Language Log post on Sept. 14, Bill Poser commented on interpretations of a speech by Gov. Sarah Palin, pointing out that The Washington Post had misinterpreted the governor’s remarks but that a defense of the governor by Bill Kristol was equally unhelpful to the candidate. Professor Poser was immediately attacked for having “politicized” the academic site. One recent comment, from a non-linguist, goes so far as to say that “political speech is deliberately designed to obfuscate and bamboozle. Parsing it is fruitless.”

Naif and mere journalist that I am, I had imagined that political discourse might be as worthy a subject of linguistic analysis as, say, faux pirate dialect.


* Rhotic is the adjective derived from rhotacism, the term linguists use for excessive or distinctive pronunciation of the letter r. (The word derives from the Greek letter rho.) American English is more rhotic than standard British English, probably because the colonies were settled by Englishmen from regions with more strongly rhotic dialects.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:52 AM | | Comments (3)


"American English is more rhotic than standard British English, probably because the colonies were settled by Englishmen from regions with more strongly rhotic dialects."

I'm not sure of this, but it may also be true that the tendency of southern British English to drop the "r" sound emerged or at least became pevalent after most of the English settlers in North America had arrived, that is, in the first part of the 19th century. I think that the non-rhotic "received pronunciation" characteristic of British upper-class speech didn't really take shape until that era and was spread by the English public schools, which received a new lease on life at that time.

I had an amusing experience once when travelling in Scotland with a friend who is originally from East Boston and now lives in Reveah and whose non-rhotic speech poses severe difficulties for anyone not from the Noath Shoah. One evening at a restaurant it took about five minutes and ultimately my intervention to get the waitress to understand that "moah budda, please" was a request for more butter. The irony is that although Tom is from this side of the Atlantic, his speech is non-rhotic; the Scottish waitress' speech, in contrast, was very rhotic. The standard American lack of a distinction between "t" and "d" sounds between vowels didn't help matters, either.

To err is human; to arr is pirate.

Good comment Bill. I've been saying something like that (the first part) for years although less eloquently.

Find Chaucer's Middle English difficult? Try reading aloud with a Scottish accent. It is amazing how it works better. I think it has something to do with the Great Vowel Shift.

Although a little late, perhaps some would like to see a video I made for a previous Talk Like a Pirate Day:

It's nice to comment on something other than identity issues. Let be be the finale of seem already.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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