Dept. of English Lang. & Lit.
hile walking on a Florida beach this past winter I came upon a group of young boys playing "Pirates of the Caribbean," the Disney blockbuster starring Johnny Depp. Their mimicking of pirates piqued my interest in the language spoken in the movie; so, I rented the video and listened.
Pirates of the Caribbean is a swashbuckler, a genre known for adventure, romance and plenty of sword fighting. Some of Hollywood's legendary stars, Douglas Fairbanks Sr., in the silent-film era, and Errol Flynn, were synonymous with the role. They had sex appeal and made women swoon.
That's why we see a Latin lover like Antonio Bandarras astride a black stallion, clad in sexy black from head to toe and with sword in hand reprising the role of Zoro, the fox. And each new generation of moviegoers is treated to a re-make of " The Three Musketeers," a classic of the genre.
Hugely successful high-budget movies, "Titanic," for instance, don't excite me because they are made to make Hollywood studios fabulous amounts of money. Moreover, I expected any Disney pirate movie to be, more or less, for kiddies. But since Johnny Depp was starring in the swashbuckler, I gave it the benefit of the doubt.
Johnny's a versatile actor, with star quality and can carry a movie on his own. He was brilliant as the bizarre Edward in "Edward Scissor Hands," though it's his least appreciated role.
Johnny's got it.
"You' re the coolest guest we've ever had on the show," talk-show host David Letterman told Johnny. He's very popular with thinking babes, too.
he language of Pirates of the Caribbean is laced with the maritime jargon of the 17th and 18th centuries, an age when adventurous men in tall ships circled the globe in search of fame and fortune. Therefore, we hear: "Heave to and take in sail," "Hoist the sail," Weigh anchor," Keep a weather eye open" and "Come about.? And when every able-bodied pirate is needed for a job, it's all hands to the boat (or on deck)."
Capt. Jack Sparrow, played by Johnny, suffers one of the worst fates to befall a sailor. His ship is commandeered during a mutiny, and he's marooned on a desert island, left to die alone. Given the hardship of live at sea and the poor treatment of sailors in that bygone era, mutiny was always a threat to the Royal Navy. The infamous mutiny on the H.M.S. Bounty has been re-told by Hollywood four times.
It wouldn't be a pirate movie if someone didn't walk the plank to Davy Jones's locker, i.e. a grave at the bottom of the deep, blue sea. This fate nearly befell Miss Elizabeth Swan, played by Kiera Knightly, the movie's damsel in distress.
Then there's a parrot that keeps mimicking, "Shiver me timbers" A parrot was the constant companion of Long John Silver, the peg-legged pirate immortalized by Robert Louis Stevenson in "Treasure Island."
Given England's glorious maritime tradition, Britannia, after all, once ruled the waves, the movie's dialogue is British, and includes the very British chum, tah, cheeky blighter, bonnie, bloody, swag and daft. And old words like strumpet, gallows, scallywag, aye and poppet are common currency
Scallywag crossed the Atlantic to become scalawag in the American south, and along with carpetbagger were opprobrious terms used during the hated Reconstruction period (1867-1877) following The Civil War (1861 to 1865).
The Queen's English is spoken from time to time in genteel requests: "May I have a moment," If I may be so bold "and "If it pleases you." And when addressing Miss Swan a deferential handmaiden says, "Begging your pardon, Miss, it'snot my place."
The pirate Barbosa is most eloquent when he says, "I'm disinclined to acquiesce to your request" and "Don't impugn my honor." He used superfluous, as well.
During an encounter between the two pirates, Capt. Jack corrects Barbosa's "Not possible"with "Not probable,"a distinction that's certainly a delight to the ears of those who appreciate precise English.
Often, the verb to be is not conjugated; so, we hear: "Where be Jack," "There be no living with her after this" and "There be the chest." These sentences could easily come from the mouths of the Artful Dodger, Fagan, Bill Sykes and other characters off the London streets of Charles Dickens.
Mate is the most frequently used maritime locution. And it confounds me that mate has disappeared from the American lexicon, because it's common currency among the people of England, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Australian men are said to be bound together by the code of Mateyism [sic].
One night when George Orwell was down and out in Paris and sleeping in a flophouse, a London cockney endeared himself to the sullen author by calling him "Mate." Hence, bridging the divide between the two Englishmen's social classes, something unlikely to have happened across the Channel in class-ridden England.
Now it could be that as Americans left the Atlantic seaboard and moved west to become ranchers and farmers, they lost their maritime identity and stopped using mate. Although I've seen mate used in a cowboy correspondence circa 1880. Yet the word is never heard in the old port cities along the east coast. It's a mystery to me.
Nor is bloody, as in "Bloody hell, mate," an expression of exasperation used by many English speakers around the world, heard in America.
Suspicious of being duped by Capt. Jack, one pirate responds to his dubious directions by saying, "a fool's errand." I recall this same idiom being used by a British pundit when assessing America's mission in Iraq, after the occupation following the successful invasion became, in the words of Arthur Schlesinger Jr., "a ghastly mess."
Of course, one can hear a higher standard of English in other films. Gwyneth Paltrow is precious in "Shakespeare in Love,"for example, when she says "Anon, anon" to her handmaiden, and the language spoken in productions of Jane Austen's novels is superlative. But these are not the kinds of films that excite most young people.
For far too long Hollywood, and record labels, has been dumbing down the popular lexicon through the coarse language and incivility it offers young people, in its celluloid world of sex, drugs, violence and car chases. There's no doubt that the popular lexicon is much coarser than the one I knew in the 1950s and 60s, when self-imposed censorship kept foul language out of movie scripts.
Now that Pirates of the Caribbean has become a series, maybe we'll start hearing boys call one another scallywags and hear them hurl scabrous dog and slack-jawed idiot insultingly. Young guys will certainly notice that mellifluous swashbucklers like Will Turner, played by Orlando Bloom, always get to kiss the best chicks.
Sherbo Professor, Dept. of English Lang. & Lit.
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