Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Talk the Plank

Today be the fifth annual International Talk Like a Pirate Day. People worldwide are urged to get in touch with their inner buccaneer and speak pirate for the day. The idea originated in 1995 when two friends from Oregon, John Baur ("Ol' Chum Bucket") and Mark Summers ("Cap'n Slappy"), proclaimed 19 September each year as the day when everyone in the world should talk like pirates. The date was selected because it is Cap’n Slappy’s ex-wife’s birthday and therefore easy for him to remember. The idea remained a private joke until 2002 when the duo wrote a letter to American humorist Dave Barry. He liked the idea and popularised it in his syndicated newspaper column. The idea quickly spread internationally.

There are several basic rules that must be observed in order to talk like a pirate. Firstly one must double up on all adjectives in order to achieve the correct level of over-enthusiastic bombast. A few letters of the alphabet are dropped such as the ‘g’ that ends present participles such as in sailin’, rowin’ and fightin’. The letter v is also omitted in words like ne’er and o’er. Pirates always speak in the present tense and say “I be” rather than the more formally correct “I am”. Pirate conversation is, of course, strictly nautical – landlubbers need not apply. But the single most defining feature of pirate talk is the long drawn out ‘arrr’ that acts as a sentence substitute as well as having a multitude of other uses. Even if a would-be pirate has mastered nothing other than ‘arrr’, he (pirates of both sexes are male) is well on the way to the sailor nirvana known as Fiddler’s Green where unlimited supplies of rum, women and tobacco are provided.

Of course, this is pure Hobsbawm – an invented tradition. Pirates never talked or acted like that but Robert Newton did. Newton was an English character actor who died in 1956. His most famous role was Long John Silver in Disney’s Treasure Island (1950). Stevenson’s original novel, a tale of "buccaneers and buried gold," provides much of stereotypical pirate culture. The shanty Dead Mans Chest is from the novel. Silver used the misquoted oath “shiver my timbers” seven times in the novel. Newton was born in Dorset which is not far from the famed Cornish smugglers coast. He provided his native accent to lend “authenticity” to the role of Long John Silver and added blandishments of his own to make the character larger than life. And it was his faux-Cornish delivery in the film which gave ‘arrr’ to the world.

Unlike the relative newcomer ‘arrr,’ piracy itself is as old as sailing. The word pirate comes from the Greek word “peira” (attack) and the earliest recorded pirates were the Anatolian Sea People who terrorised the Mediterranean around 1200 BC. Real pirates still exist in many parts of the world today and piracy is on the increase. In November 2005 the cruise liner Seabourn Spirit was attacked off the Somali coast by pirates in speed boats. The captain managed to change the course of the vessel and sped away without incident. The UN International Maritime Organisation (IMO) were aware of 27 pirate attacks off Somalia alone in the 12 months leading up to the Seabourn Spirit incident. These include the commandeering of two vessels used by the U.N. World Food Programme bound for Somalia. The Straits of Malacca off the coast of Singapore is another piracy hotspot. The Strait is the busiest waterway in the world with 65,000 vessels annually plying its waters. Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore have begun to co-ordinate maritime and air patrols to curb piracy. As a result there has only been three sea robberies in the area in the first half of 2006, down from 18 cases for the whole of last year and 38 in 2004.

The threat of international piracy is so strong that the IMO have issued a guideline to ship operators called “Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships". The document has chilling hints for crew members working aboard ships such as point 33 “(they) should avail themselves of shadow and avoid being silhouetted by deck lights as this may make them targets for seizure by approaching attackers” and point 57 “in the event that attackers gain temporary control of the ship, crew members...should leave CCTV running.” Piracy is no joke on the high seas. Shiver their timbers.

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