Grammar pirate

The title of this cartoon, which turned up yesterday in FB’s Our Bastard Language group:


The captain is both a pirate and (as it turns out, once you figure out what the man intends to say) a grammar nazi, bent on correcting his crew’s inferior (as he sees it) English — hence the portmanteau grammar pirate. So the cartoon is, primarily, about (stereotypical) pirate talk (which will take us to the West Country of England), but also about peeving.

A digression on sources. The cartoon tells us that it’s a 2013 strip by (or at least registered by) one Scott Clark, at the site I quickly discovered that the domain name kindasketchy (for a cartoon Kinda Sketchy) has lapsed and is now available for purchase. And that the world contains a large number of people named Scott Clark.

I found no further Kinda Sketchy strips, or any gag cartoons by anyone named Scott Clark, but I did find a famous Pixar animator named Scott Clark, who might possibly be the artist for #1. On Twitter:

Scott Clark (@CottSclark): animator, story artist, actor, teacher, student, 20 year Pixar vet, RISD alum, husband, & dad

What is the captain saying? #1 is firmly located, visually and linguistically, in Pirateland, the fantasy world of pirate stereotypes. In the first three panels, the characters are on board a ship — note deck, swabbing, ship’s wheel — and are all groomed and garbed as pirates, two crewmen plus their captain.

Crewman 1 begins with one bit of stereotypical PirateTalk, invariant be for the copula. The captain’s response is spelled ARE, but by now we’re in Pirateland, so we take that to be another feature of PirateTalk, the hyperarticuated rhotic exclamation arrr, with three ranges of usage:

(a) ‘yes’; (b) a generally affirmative but nonspecific response; (c) a generic strong exclamation (often negative in affect, close to arrgh)

Crewman 1 takes him to have uttered an instance of (c), and the two crewmen continue, in the next two panels, to operate under that assumption. In the second panel, crewman 1 produces another instance of invariant be, eliciting another ARE from the captain; and in the third panel both crewman produce invariant be, triggering a crazed expression from the captain.

But, but… why is the exclamation spelled ARE? As a spelling of [ar] (never mind the phonetic details of the two segments)? Why not ARRR or ARR or ARRH? Well, are is an ordinary word of English, a form of … the verb BE.

Understanding begins to dawn, even if you haven’t looked at the title of the cartoon, which clearly suggests that the captain is a grammar nazi: the cartoon spells it ARE because the captain is uttering the word are (intended as a correction of the crewman’s non-standard invariant be), not the (homophonous) exclamation arrr. It’s piratical peeve.

grammar nazis / Nazis. On this blog, on 1/31/10, in “X Nazi”, where there are links to postings on grammar nazi, including this note:

grammar nazi has come up several times on Language Log, for reference to “a person who insists on correcting (or incorrecting) other people’s usage” (as Mark Liberman put it here).

PirateTalk. We’re about half a year away from TLAPD (Talk Like a Pirate Day) — that would be September 19th — but Mark Liberman’s annual postings for some time on Language Log (showing the Corsair Ergonomic Keyboard for Pirates) eventually expose most of what you need to know about PirateTalk. From his summary of 9/19/08, “R”:

In TLAPD posts from earlier years, you can find instructions for the more difficult task of talking (as opposed to typing) like a pirate; the history of piratical r-fulness; and other goodies: 20032004200520062007.

There’s actually some serious historical linguistics (and cultural history) involved here, as discussed in “R!?“, 9/19/2005, and “Pirate R as in I-R-ELAND“, 9/20/2006. And even a bit of mathematical linguistics.

The 9/19/25 posting poses the main question:

where did all the “pirates say arrr” stuff come from, anyhow?

and asks two more specific questions:

Is it some sort of folk-stereotype about pirates coming from r-ful parts of the British Isles? Was it launched by some influential book or movie that featured an especially rhotic buccaneer?

In brief, yes and yes.

There are two two separate but related stereotypes here: PirateTalk and what’s sometimes called Mummerset, a stereotype of West Country dialect (native to the southwest corner of England). There are traditions for representing both of these in print (going back at least to Shakespeare) and on the stage or in movies (also of some vintage, though PirateTalk crystallized in popular culture through Robert Newton’s performance in the role of Long John Silver in the 1950 movie version of Treasure Island).

The real-life link between Mummerset and PirateTalk comes from the fact that British sailors, both law-abiding and piratical, were heavily drawn from the maritime West Country, so that the dialects of the area contributed disproportionately to British sailor talk. (And also might have resulted, as J.L. Dillard has suggested, in a Maritime Pidgin English through contact with African peoples and languages).

Mummerset. From Wikipedia:

Mummerset refers to a fictional rustic English county and, more commonly, to the English dialect supposedly spoken there. Mummerset is used by actors to represent a stereotypical English West Country accent while not specifically referencing any particular county.

The name is a portmanteau of mummer (an archaic term for a folk actor) and Somerset, a largely rural county.

Mummerset draws on a mixture of characteristics of real dialects from the West Country, such as rhoticism, forward-shifted diphthongs, lengthened vowels, and the voicing of word-initial consonants that are voiceless in other English dialects. Word-initial “S” is replaced with “Z”; “F” is replaced with “V”. It also uses perceived dialect grammar, replacing instances of “am”, “are” and “is” with “be”. The sentence “I haven’t seen him, that farmer, since Friday” could be parsed in Mummerset as “Oi ain’t zeen ‘im that be varmer since Vroiday”.

… In literature: In Shakespeare’s King Lear, Edgar speaks in Mummerset before he fights Oswald in Act IV, scene 6 [rendered here as running text, rather than in lines]:

Good gentleman, go your gait, and let poor volk pass. An ’chud ha’ bin zwagger’d out of my life, ’t would not ha’bin zo long as ’tis by a vortnight. Nay, come not near th’ old man; keep out, ’che vor ye, or Ise try whether your costard or my ballow be the harder. ’Chill be plain with you.

And the West Country, from Wikipedia:

(#2) Note especially Penzance (as in Pirates of) in Cornwall

The West Country is a loosely defined area of south-western England. The term usually encompasses the historic counties of Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Somerset, and often the counties of Bristol, Gloucestershire and Wiltshire, in the South West region. The region is host to distinctive regional dialects and accents. Some definitions also include Herefordshire.

Treasure Island. From Wikipedia:

Treasure Island is an adventure novel by Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson, narrating a tale of “buccaneers and buried gold.” Its influence is enormous on popular perceptions of pirates, including such elements as treasure maps marked with an “X,” schooners, the Black Spot, tropical islands, and one-legged seamen bearing parrots on their shoulders.

Treasure Island was originally considered a coming-of-age story and is noted for its atmosphere, characters, and action. It is one of the most frequently dramatized of all novels. It was originally serialized in the children’s magazine Young Folks from 1881 through 1882 under the title Treasure Island, or the mutiny of the Hispaniola, credited to the pseudonym “Captain George North”. It was first published as a book on 14 November 1883, by Cassell & Co.

… There have been over 50 film and TV versions made. They include [two wonderful versions]:

Treasure Island (1934), starring Jackie Cooper and Wallace Beery. An MGM production, the first sound film version.

Treasure Island (1950), starring Bobby Driscoll and Robert Newton. Notable for being the Walt Disney Studios’ first completely live action film. The first version in color.

(#3) The 1950 film

(#4) Robert Newton in the 1950 film

Bonus. An entertaining portmanteau in my 9/27/10 LLog posting “Said the Pirate King, “Aaarrf …””, about “the delightful children’s book Seadogs: An Epic Ocean Operetta“. Yes, a combination of piratical aaarr and canine arf.

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