When learning how to talk like a pirate, we need to consider several things. First, we need to get the fundamentals of story right. Afterwards, we must take care of character development. On top of these foundations, we can proceed to acquire and direct voice talent (creating voice over, dubbing and even audio ads).
This post has been updated in October 2021.
How to Talk Like a Pirate (of the Caribbean)
“In an honest Service, there is thin Commons, low Wages, and hard Labour; in this, Plenty and Satiety, Pleasure and Ease, Liberty and Power; and who would not balance Creditor on this Side, when all the Hazard that is run for it, at worst, is only a sower Look or two at choaking. No, a merry Life and a short one shall be my Motto.”
Bartholomew ‘Black Bart’ Roberts, Pirate operating in the Caribbean and West Africa, 1682-1722.
Piracy in the seas has a vast history, spanning different countries and cultures. It still exists, around the Horn of Africa for one, as is reported regularly in the news. When dealing with how to talk like a pirate, however, our copy and content will be in the English language, so we will probably be most interested in the ‘Golden Age of Piracy’.
This period began in the 16th century and phased out in the early 19th century. Its heaviest period, however, was from the 1660’s up until the 1730’s. More specifically, the years 1716 to 1726 saw the most intense and dramatic pirate activity. Piracy in this era coalesced in the Caribbean. It featured pirates, crews, vessels, and States fighting each other in an explosive brew of danger and high adventure.
There are some interesting distinctions to be aware of:
Free and reckless to plunder the seas, at their peril. The term ‘pirate’, however, is usually an umbrella term to include the following three characters.
These were essentially pirates, authorized by a particular State to roam and pillage. They would attack vessels of other nations, plunder and pay tax to their Crown. Francis Drake was a famous early privateer authorized by the British Crown, for example.
Small-time pirates. The ‘freelancers’ of the sea. Sometimes lawless pirates, sometimes employed as privateers. Originally, buccaneers were mostly found in the island of Tortuga and Hispaniola.
Generally considered an offensive term in the era. It was used to describe foreign and thus enemy privateers.
Level 1: Story
When we want to learn how to talk like a pirate in order to craft voice over, audio ads or something of the sort, the first step is great writing.
We have talked about the basics of structure in other articles, though it bears repeating. When crafting any sort of content, three-act structure will take us a long way.
Three-act structure begins with an inciting incident, which propels the action. The first act ends with a turning point, leading to the second act. The second act is usually divided in two, with a midpoint. This second act finishes with yet another turning point, leading to the third act and towards the final resolution.
This traditional structure may seem dry, even passé, but it serves as a great platform for all sorts of content. Even the most novel forms of story-telling are usually built with a solid three-act structure underneath.
The Hero’s Journey
The other great structure of storytelling over which we may learn how to talk like a pirate is the ‘hero’s journey’. This is the most basic genre of story. It is a sturdy framework for organizing a tale. Many pirate stories are built around the basic myth-adventure genre.
This structure of storytelling (some would call it the most basic genre of all) begins with an ordinary world, where a hero receives a call to adventure. The hero finds a mentor and sets out on a journey, crossing a threshold, enduring tests, and battling enemies. The hero eventually reaches a final battle which yields a reward as victory is achieved.
Level 2: Character Development
Learning how to talk like a pirate requires developing a great character first. This is the job of the writer. Afterward, this character will be fleshed out by a savvy voice actor.
It is important to realize that investigating a topic, such as Caribbean piracy, may become overwhelming. Many a writer begins to investigate earnestly only to be drawn more and more into a seemingly inexhaustible supply of sources. The best idea is to investigate based on some principles:
- Setting a short timeline wherein investigation must be completed.
- Investigating pointedly and specifically. This means investigating to shed light on particular attributes of the pirate character, instead of learning the vast underpinning of all things related to piracy.
- Where is the pirate from? It is best to make pirates British, with a specific city of origin. This will help when casting voice talent. Many pirates hailed from port cities and from rough-and-tumble origins.
Level 3: Voice Acting and Dialogue
A solid story and characters will be fruitless without great voice acting and dialogues. It is in proper casting and in the recording studio where we truly learn how to talk like a pirate.
When we talk about pirates we are usually referring to Caribbean pirates of the 17th and early 18th century, as stated earlier. Because our projects will most likely be in English, we can add a layer to mix: we are talking about British pirates.
A great source in the language of pirates is the public domain book ‘A General History of the Pyrates’, written by a Captain Charles Johnson (a pseudonym of an unknown author; some say perhaps a pirate himself). Published in 1724, the book describes the main pirates of the day. All this is useful information in its own right.
Most importantly, however, a content creator will benefit from the writing style of the book. The style of speech and writing in the era was not unpolished. When learning how to talk like a pirate, it is perhaps best to create a language that is flowery, at times extravagant, yet gruff and combative.
Note for instance, how the famous pirate Blackbeard spoke, before his last battle, as reported by Johnson’s book:
“Damn you for Villains, who are you? And, from whence came you? The Lieutenant made him Answer, You may see by our Colours we are no Pyrates. Black-beard bid him send his Boat on Board, that he might see who he was; but Mr. Maynard reply’d thus; I cannot spare my Boat, but I will come aboard of you as soon as I can, with my Sloop. Upon this, Black-beard took a Glass of Liquor and drank to him with these Words: Damnation seize my Soul if I give you Quarters, or take any from you. In Answer to which, Mr. Maynard told him, That he expected no Quarters from him, nor should he give him any.”
Pirate talk is invariably flourished for effect ie: “Damnation seize my soul”. Note also that, apart from the style of language, there is specific terminology that is very much of that world. See the words “no quarters”, which means ‘not taking prisoners’. It meant a fight to the death. It is important to understand this terminology, to properly learn how to talk like a pirate. To this end, it is useful to read Johnson’s book. A lot of the strange language will be understandable by its context.
There is another great resource in the book ‘The Pirate Primer: Mastering the Language of Swashbucklers & Rogues’.
The author, George Choundas, states that pirates (specifically the ‘Caribbean Pirates’ we have been examining), did speak distinctively and that there is such thing as ‘pirate-speak’. He compiles a list of terminology from both old and newer sources, including greetings, partings, flourishes, threats, insults, curses, toasts and more.
Choundas notes that there is some influence of Elizabethan English (think Shakespeare) in the speech of pirates, even though that era pre-dated the ‘Golden Age’ of piracy. Such influence is evident in the Johnson book we mentioned earlier as well. Beware though: pirates came out in force after the death of Elizabeth I and it is useful to use specific terminology like that described by Choundas.
Although we are not affiliated with this book in any way, we do encourage content creators who want to learn how to talk like a pirate to give it a read. Regardless, the use of all this terminology is the ‘cherry on top’ so to speak, of our content. We must strive to get all the fundamentals described in this article right in our scripts and copy before we pepper our work with specific words and phrases.
Finding Pirate Voices and Creating Content
Learning how to talk like a pirate may seem problematic. Setting off on a project which demands pirate voices may be daunting. There are several steps to such a job.
All-Inclusive, Flexible Provider
It is ideal that someone seeking to create ‘pirate’ content (be it an audio ad or voice work in general) seek out an all-inclusive provider.
A provider must have a flexible approach to creating these projects. Moreover, their customer care must be constant. Otherwise, such a layered and complex content will simply not come out right.
Bunny Studio is able to handle a project of this complexity from start to finish, including all copy, scripts, casting and producing.
Writing, Casting and Directing
Writing a convincing script will be the biggest challenge, even more than directing talent on how to talk like a pirate. Asking for a writer who is able to write in ‘British English’ is a good idea.
Thereafter, it is best to cast British voice talent (or talent who can imitate different British accents convincingly). Pirates came from several nationalities but in the collective unconscious of people, pirates in the Caribbean were tough Brits.
American neutral accents can be used, if absolutely necessary. Experimentation with other accents (Dutch, Spanish etc) can yield unique characters too. Note, however, that these pirates may not be perceived as ‘mainstream’ pirates by a general English-speaking public.
The Gist of It: Getting the Fundamentals Right
Learning how to talk like a pirate and creating related projects may seem tough. The important part is simply getting the fundamentals that we have spoken of here. The key issue is simply believability, except in more complex forms of content which demand extreme historical and scholarly accuracy.
As mentioned earlier, a good rule of thumb is writing and speaking like an exaggerated, articulate, dangerous, jolly ruffian. The English should not quite be Elizabethan, but close, without the extremely antiquated forms, and veering decisively towards Modern English.
The end result could sound something like the unforgettable Robert Newton as ‘Long John Silver’ or several characters in Pirates of the Caribbean. We have deliberately left these examples towards the end to stress the need for creativity and uniqueness in creating our own pirate characters, based on the principles discussed.
For now, we bid you leave, fair winds and following seas, and all our duty to you in this fine quest, if you prove of the right mettle. But do it right, or, mark you here and devil doubt it: Split you sideways we will if you make a mockery of this trade and of how to talk like a pirate!
Find the right voice for you today at Bunny Studio!