Tuesday, August 08, 2017

You could be doing something iconic and not realize it -or- why pirates speak the way they do

by Rick Blechta

Robert Newton as Long John Silver
The two posts by Sybil and Aline about British sayings we’ve had recently here on Type M have been very entertaining. I had originally thought today that I would add my thoughts, but then another “left turn idea” (a saying of my mother’s) jumped into my brain and I’d like to discuss that. Don’t ask me how I got to this point, because I honestly couldn’t tell you.

I’m sure most of you are familiar with pirate movies, the most famous of those being Treasure Island which was made for the Walt Disney studios in 1950. British actor Robert Newton created the iconic rolê of Long John Silver and it really is an amazing performance to watch. He completely dominated every scene he was in and made the rolê his alone.

He went on to play Blackbeard and Long John Silver again in subsequent movies, but the die by that time had already been cast. To almost everyone now, pirates speak with Newton’s West Country accent because, well, that’s the way all pirates spoke.

Truth is, they didn’t. Newton was born in Dorset and spent his formative years almost complete in England’s West Country (generally considered the counties of Dorset, Devon, Cornwall and Somerset). When he was cast as Long John, Newton decided to give the character’s speech an amalgam of the regional accents, most heavily drawing on Devon to my ear. When I first visited Devon in 1990, I was charmed that lifelong residents of this beautiful place talked just like pirates. I didn’t hear things like “Avast, me hearties”, or anything, but the accent sounded right out of the Treasure Island I loved so much as a child.

It took a British friend to explain it all to me how the pirate thing came about. True, the West Country provided an awful lot of seafaring men over the years, and some of them did wind up being “bad-uns”, but the truth was that Robert Newton had unintentionally single-handedly given pirates their modern voice. (My friend, Martin Smith, also does a side-splitting imitation of Newton complete with the sideways squint.)

Sidebar: If you’re not aware, September 19th is International Talk Like a Pirate Day and on that date, you’re supposed to speak just like a pirate would. Guess who the “patron saint” of that event is?

Now, the question is did Newton set out to set the mark for how we think of pirates speaking? I’m sure it was just another job for him, but in crafting his performance, he did accomplish exactly that. His performance took over our perceptions of what a right and proper pirate is supposed to sound like. Part of the credit must certainly also go to Robert Louis Stevenson’s original strong characterization of Long John who also dominates the original story. But anyone reading his novel today will certainly have Newton in their ear whenever Long John speaks.

Because that’s the way all pirates talk, innit?

(The book photo above is from an early 20th Century copy of Treasure Island illustrated by N.C. Wyeth of which I happily inherited a copy from my mother. It is a gorgeous thing with tissue paper covering the fabulous illustrations inside.)


Sybil Johnson said...

How very interesting. What a great story. Thanks, Rick!

Donna S said...

I enjoyed your post very much and remember seeing that movie as a young person. But what about Johnny Depp and his character Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean series? All the other characters in those movies are memorable as well. He certainly does not "speak like a pirate" though. Just a thought.

Rick Blechta said...

Donna, apparently Depp fashioned his pirate accent on the speech patterns of Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, sort of nod, nod, wink, wink, if you catch my drift. I should probably watch a whole bunch of pirate movies to see how well my thesis holds up. And I really did enjoy Pirates of the Caribbean, but the sequels not as much.

Thanks for commenting, both of you!