Robert Newton: The Patron Saint of Talk Like a Pirate Day
It all started on June 6, 1995 when two friends, John Bauer and Mark Summers, were playing a racquetball game. When one of them sustained an injury, he reacted to the pain with the outburst of, “Aaarrr! Avast!” The idea for Talk Like a Pirate Day was born!
Dave Barry, a syndicated humor columnist, received a letter from the two landlubbers about their idea and Barry liked it so much he started to promote September 19th as Talk Like a Pirate Day. What began as an inside joke between two friends eventually became an international cult phenomenon.
But did pirates really say “Shiver me timbers!”, wear eye patches, or walk around with a parrot on their shoulder yelling “Aarrr!?”
The use of the word “Aarrr” first appeared in the 1934 film, Treasure Island. Treasure Island was first published in 1883 by Robert Louis Stevenson and was specifically written for boys. Stevenson said in creating the idea of the story that, “It was to be a story for boys; no need for psychology or fine writing.” His idea for the story was conceived from an imaginary treasure map Stevenson and his stepson had drawn together passing the time away on a rainy day. At the time, the character of Long John Silver was very unusual to find in children’s literature due to Silver’s moral ambiguity.
Since Pirates traditionally operated along the Caribbean and eastern coast of the America’s, most of them originated out of the western side of England from the ports of Bristol and Liverpool. Our modern impression of pirate speech isn’t historically accurate to how real pirates in the 17th and 18th century spoke. The typical language spoken on board ships can be traced back to underclass British sailors.
There was no standard language on pirate ships because many members of the crew were from other countries. Crew members from West Country traditionally used a lot of curse words amplified with linguist slang of French, Italian, Spanish and Dutch picked up around the trade routes. During the early 20th century, “Aarr!” was an affirmation and maritime expression spoken as a part of everyday speech. Since Stevenson spent some time in the West Country, he liked the unique sound of the dialect and used it to create one of the most memorable characters in English literature.
Robert Newton specialized in portraying pirates. His most famous role was Long John Silver in Disney’s adaptation of Treasure Island. Born in Devon, not far from Bristol, Robert used his flamboyant pirate voice with his West Country accent and became the first actor to employ the phrase “Arrrrh, matey!” Roberts’ portrayal of Long John Silver has become the standard imitation of pirates.
West Country regional dialect tends to emphasize their r’s and replace the verbs ‘is’ and ‘are’ with ‘be’. So they use the word ‘arrr’ in place of saying ‘yes’. Robert exaggerated his native accent to bring an additional flair to Hollywood’s version of how a pirate would talk. Robert Newton popularized the term because he rolled the “rrr” which is a distinctive element of speech in the West Country of England. It is because of Newton’s famous thick pirate accent, Bauer and Summers chose Newton as the “patron saint” of Talk Like a Pirate Day. When Disney released Treasure Island during the summer of 1950, it was Disney’s first live-action film and the first adaptation of the classic story made in color.
Robert Newton was a well-respected British stage and film actor with other notable performances in Hamlet, Oliver Twist, and Around the World in 80 Days. But it was his eccentric performance in Treasure Island that marked the peak of his popularity. Newton was one of the top ten moneymakers in British cinema and was cast to play another pirate, Blackbeard, in Blackbeard the Pirate released in 1952. Sadly, by the time his popularity peaked, he was a full blown alcoholic that fueled his death at the early age of 50. Newton never lived to see the role he created of his infamous “pirate-style” vision.
By his definition of a pirate, Newton’s character was adopted and has continued to dominate pop culture for over 60 years. His pirate archetype has completely defined how actors portray pirates on stage and film. His style has been used in The Simpsons’ sea captain, Mr. Krabs on Spongebob, Patrick Stewart’s rendition in The Pagemaster and even Robert Shaw’s role as Quint in the movie Jaws. Talk Like a Pirate Day probably would have never been invented if Disney had never cast Newton as Long John Silver. And Newton created all this persona on one leg, unshaven, over the top native accent while heavily intoxicated. It was a fitting way to teach the world how to speak like a pirate, and Newton will forever be the first person to truly “Talk Like a Pirate!”