Monday, September 19, 2011

Talk Like an Early-Modern Sea-Going Outlaw Day

Today is International Talk Like a Pirate Day.* It got me thinking about why there's no "International Talk Like a Knight Day" or some similar equivalent.

Our sense of what it means to "Talk Like a Pirate" comes from Robert Newton's performance of Long John Silver in Disney's 1950 version of Treasure Island. You can get a sense of it from these clips:

So, in the popular imagination, what do people in the Middle Ages talk like? Having attended enough SCA events and Ren Faires, I'm thinking it's supposed to be some approximation of Early Modern courtly speech, but is there some common origin like "pirate" talk that can be traced back to some Errol Flynn movie or something? Has anyone out there done any research on this?

*Or, "Arrr, it be International Talk Like a Pirate Day."


  1. It's very possible that it all dates back to a 1972 tape made for the first Renaissance Faire in California by Dr. Robert Easton from UC Berkeley. This was a tape of a talk that he gave on 16th-century English from Warwickshire, which is the county in the West Midlands that was home to William Shakespeare.

    This became the basis for "Basic Faire Accent" at the California Renaissance Faires, and as I found when teaching these language classes for the Northern California Faire in 2005, a surprising amount of it has survived. I suspect it was simply carried from there by performers to other, later Faires.

    It's been passed on almost entirely by oral tradition, aided greatly by the language classes taught by Kage Baker and Kathleen Bartholomew for many, many years. I have never heard the original tape, but (for instance) according to my references, a good many of the differences from modern American English in vowel and consonant sounds that were recommended by Kage and Kate are accurate to the original and have survived in the oral tradition fairly well, at least in California.

    As a "living tradition," of course, "BFA" has its own dialectical history, and has added over the years a number of features that are not AFAIK 16th century English at all. (For instance, answering questions in the negative by saying "Nay, not!" This construction is of course perfectly period as a part of expressions such as "Nay, not so!" but I don't think I've ever seen it used as a complete expression in 16th century literature.)

    The classes I taught (my basic reference was Gert Ronberg's _A Way With Words_, and later the work of David Crystal) were an attempt to let what we actually do know about 16th century English prevail over some of these non-period tendencies.

    I don't know how successful I was, since I didn't teach these classes for decades as Kate and Kage did.

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