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Why Do Pirates Say Arrr?

Have you ever wondered why pirates say "Arrr"? We answer this burning question in this edition of Never Stop Asking Why.

We love pirates around here! So to celebrate the Haunted House: Pirate's Revenge, we're answering questions about pirates all month! Have you ever wondered why pirates say "Arrr"? We answer this burning question with help from National Geographic and American Profile.

Pronounced also as “Yarrr!” and “Arg!”, the word “Arrr!” is traditionally said by pirates when responding "yes" or when expressing excitement.  

But did pirates really "arr" all the time? Probably not, though it's tough to say exactly how most pirates really talked. There are of course no audio recordings of pirate speech.  There isn't much written down by pirates themselves, and witnesses have not written down any extensive lists of quotes or pirate phrases.

Most experts think English-speaking Golden Age pirates spoke exactly the same as English-speaking merchant sailors of the time, since large numbers in both groups tended to be from riverfront neighborhoods around London, according to historian Colin Woodard. 

Many of the phrases that most people think of as pirate speech today can actually be traced back to portrayals of pirates in movies. The first fictional pirate speak was in the 1934 film “Treasure Island” starring Lionel Barrymore, and later was used by a character in the 1940 novel “Adam Penfeather, Buccaneer” by English author Jeffery Farnol. 

But by far the most popular movie pirate was actor Robert Newton, who portrayed Long John Silver in the Disney film version of “Treasure Island”  in 1950 and Blackbeard in 1952, to name just two. Newton based his pirate talk on the dialect of his native West Country in southwestern England, which just happened to be where Long John Silver hailed from in the Treasure Island novel.  In this area of England, during the early 20th century, " 'Arr' was an affirmation, not unlike the Canadian 'eh,' and maritime expressions were a part of everyday speech," Woodard explains.

While some pirates and mariners did come from that area of England, most did notso the majority of pirates didn't speak like actor Robert Newton's Long John Silver.

 Looking for more Never Stop Asking "Why?" questions? Catch up on all of the past "Whys" on the blog!