Arrr! International Talk Like A Pirate Day (September 19th) is fast approaching. It’s a fun holiday for linguists and linguageeks because it celebrates language differences. It’s also an opportunity to engage people in conversations about why we celebrate some differences while denigrating others.
Certainly, we should acknowledge that people are far more accepting of an accent if it occurs in a silly context. A Halloween costume that converts a frightening murdering thief into the playful pirates we think of today lends itself well to language tolerance because it doesn’t threaten the status quo.
Americans are also more accepting of accents that sound British. We still have Anglophile tendencies in our culture, and as a result British accents tend to be perceived of as smarter, more educated, more trustworthy, and more prestigious, even when they are the accents of people who do not fit this profile. This is probably part of the reason that the British-influenced pirate accent doesn’t seem very intimidating to most of us. Although the British once conquered the world, Americans successfully fought them off, and we’ve been allies in most of the recent wars. Today Americans don’t think of British people as being particularly threatening.
These kinds of social associations are, in fact, more important than linguistic differences when it comes to determining whether or not a language difference is going to be celebrated or denigrated. Take for example the pronunciation of the r-sound in words like feather, hear, bore, and bird. People at both ends of the social spectrum have dialects where these r-sounds are deleted, but only those in the lower classes are judged as less intelligent for this deletion.
So as you celebrate International Pirate Day, have fun! There’s plenty to enjoy on the holiday’s webpage, including the “English to Pirate translation” service. It is a great opportunity to engage students in discussions about language differences and language judgments.