Ask anyone to do their best pirate impression and you’re guaranteed to hear at least one “Arrr” along with a number of well-known piratisms such as “shiver me timbers” and “scallywag”. But did Golden Age pirates really speak that way?
The short answer is no. The so-called pirate accent that we know and love today was a product of Hollywood and can be traced to one actor in particular: Robert Newton. Newton, an English actor hailing from the West Country of England, shaped how we imagine the pirate accent to be when he took on the role of Long John Silver in the 1950 film adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1883 novel Treasure Island. After his performance, the stereotype of the peg-legged, parrot owning, “Arrr”-spouting pirate was cemented in pop culture and became the basis for many future performances.
Robert Newton used an amped up version of his own West Country accent for the role, a choice which many say would not have been far off from how the Golden Age pirates spoke during the period of 1650-1720s. However, there is little evidence to support that belief. While quite a few pirates like Blackbeard did in fact come from southwestern England, Golden Age pirates came from all over the world with the majority of English pirates probably coming from the London area, meaning there was no universal “pirate accent.”
As for the infamous pirate slang, much of it also derives from popular culture, both literary and film. Take for example the phrase “Shiver me timbers.” This phrase was used by fiction authors as a mock oath, first appearing around the turn of the 18th century, and most notably used by Long John Silver in Treasure Island. It does have roots in actual pirate speak, though – “timbers” were the pieces of wood composing the frames of a ship’s hull, and “shiver” was another word for “splinter”.
Another example is “Pieces of eight.” The real de a ocho, or the “piece of eight,” was a Spanish silver coin that was minted after 1598. The coins were in wide circulation around the world and were used for trade in the Americas, so pirates would have been familiar with them. However, the term “pieces of eight” became popularized due to a certain book, which you can probably already guess. After that, it was often used a generic term for money.
There you have it – the pirate accent that is so well-known around the world actually stems from one actor’s performance in the film adaptation of a hugely influential novel.