Thursday, October 8, 2009

Why do pirates always say "Arrr"?

Have you noticed the way that pirates talk? Not real pirates, of course, but the ones we see representing piracy in film and on TV - especially when they're in a 'lone pirate on a kids' show' situation. You see variation when you get lots of pirates together, like in Peter Pan or Pirates of the Carribean - but when you see just one pirate character, there's a very specific way that he (or she) will typically talk. It's the way Captain Feathersword talks on the Wiggles show, the way Captain Scallawag talks in Dragon Tales, or the way Teacher Susie imitates pirates in "Sid the Science Kid." Even Dola in the film Castle in the Sky does a bit of it. It's the source of that joke my kids like: "What's a pirate's favorite letter?" "Arrrr!"

I was listening to it the other day and I realized that the closest real world accent it resembles (to my ear) is Irish. Of course, it's not really Irish, just a weird version of it. But that got me thinking.

Was there ever a real Irish pirate who inadvertently bequeathed his accent to pirate stereotypes everywhere?

The assignment of specific dialects to particular types of characters is not restricted to pirates, either. I remember recently seeing the Italian chefs from Lady and the Tramp and thinking, "Wow, that was stereotypical!" But then I watched a few episodes of the children's cartoon, Curious George, and I realized that Italian chefs are still given broad Italian accents. I'll give the Wiggles credit here - one of the members of the dance troupe is Italian, and while he is a chef, he's actually, really Italian. He even speaks Italian on the show! Now, that's refreshing.

When I watched the newest Star Trek movie I was thrilled by the fact that they chose people with real accents. Scotty was British, and Chekov had an actual Russian accent. Wow! If you're going to retain those roles as they always have been, that's definitely the way to go. At least for the adult crowd.

Now, having said, "for the adult crowd," of course I can't leave it there. Does it take sophistication to understand that people are different, and speak differently? I don't think so. Children have a much better ear for language differences than we do, so I can't help wondering why it's okay to assign dialects to roles the way we do in children's shows.

When you're writing in science fiction and fantasy, and you want to use dialects, be careful. Don't fall into the pattern of accessing an available stereotype if you can help it. Especially if your characters aren't on an Earth-related world, think through what you want to do, and try to come up with something different. If you must use a dialect, try to find an actual speaker of that dialect to consult with you - or you may end up seriously offending someone.

Maybe we keep these things in kids shows because they don't know any better and can't be offended. But in an age of increased awareness of diversity, I'm surprised in some ways that we can't do better.

On the other hand.

I generally like to try to keep an anthropologist's view - that is to say, a more distant and uncommitted view - on most questions like this. So here's the other side of the coin: if we go all the way and try portray characters with real world cultures, what will happen to the legends, and the spirit of all the beloved characters who do have these more biased characteristics? Will they suddenly be maligned for the - largely loving - spirit in which they created? That would be a terrible shame.

A colorful character who has a foreign dialect needn't be an ugly stereotype. It's important to remember that. I can easily imagine for example placing a cook with a French accent - another very common stereotype - into a modern work. Successfully even, so long as that character was well-integrated and had more to him (or her!) than just an accent to laugh at.

When we write, we're placing ourselves into the grand history of storytelling. I admit I'd like to see the new focus on diversity reach a bit more thoroughly into our modern media products. But I still love the classics, and I think they should be enjoyed as products of their time - neither simply lauded as great works and the way things must be done, nor disparaged for "old-fashioned" ideas.

I wonder how our current views will be seen a hundred years from now - and whether pirates will still say, "arr!"