As I prepare for the third session of my Skulls and Shackles campaign, I had an epiphany, and boy was it a dumb one. I had been giving captain Barnabas Harrigan, first-mate Mr. Plugg, and boatswain Master Scourge inconsistent voices when roleplaying them. They all started as basic pirate until I realized everyone sounded the same, and I changed them a bit. Now over these sessions these 3 characters have like 9 voices.
In lieu of costumes, the voice given to a character is its primary defining trait in regards to roleplaying. You don’t need to be Michael Winslow to be good and engaging when doing voices, small things like tones, ticks, volume, and mannerisms can allow you to play dozens of characters with the same voice.
If that’s the case, then why does it bother me that 3 characters have the same voice? Couldn’t I just change up their mannerisms to make each one unique? I could, except that except it’d be unrealistic. I know I shouldn’t be looking to fantasy RPG settings for realism, but Golarion does such a good job of building cultures and peoples that it’s almost a disservice to the setting not to explore this a little further.
Before I jump into Golarion and my pirate problem I want to have some real world discussion about speech. No matter who you are, you have an accent. You speak your language in a way that people elsewhere do not. This is due to a slew of cultural factors that are individual to each area. The English spoken in countries like the U.K., Ireland, The United States, Australia, and Liberia are all English, but you could probably pick the speakers point of origin out pretty quickly. More to that idea, the English spoken inside of these countries can vary wildly. People from the U.S. sound different than people from the U.K., and people from Alabama sound different than people from Boston.
With this in mind, why do pirates all sound like Geoffrey Rush? Thinking through it, pirates in history came from scores of nations, why would they sound alike? In our popular culture the pirate accent was created by the English actor Robert Newton. He played the part of Long John Silver in the 1950 film Treasure Island and Blackbeard in the 1952 film Blackbeard the Pirate. Newton was from Dorset, England and spoke with a “West Country” accent. There is some cultural appropriateness in Robert Newtons’ performances, as famous pirates like Blackbeard and Black Sam Bellamy supposedly hailed from that same West Country area as Newton. Since then, the Newton dialect is the de facto voice for pirates.
Even in Spanish they sound so scurvy!
Back in my Skulls and Shackles game this idea hits me, hard. Mr. Scourge, Mr. Plugg, and Captain Barnabas all hail from different places and are of different ethnicities. I quickly try to find an appropriate non-Newtonian accent and realize, I don’t know how anyone on Golarion should sound. Generally fantasy characters speak in a flighty British, because as Harry Potter taught us, magic is from England. Elves speak a softer version of it, Dwarves speak a rough Scottish, Orcs grunt. It’s all so boring and formulaic, probably a remnant of the first fantasy portrayals in the same way the Newtonian pirate accent is. In Tolkiens’ mind a gruff, strong, humorless person may have been from Scotland while a pompous, over-educated, fancy boy who spoke like a radio presenter was probably speaking in the Received Pronunciation of English (That fancy, posh accent we all give Kreighton Shaine.)
Golarion has many languages and the most widely spoken is Common, in the Inner Sea Region at least. For every non-native common speaker who’s speaking common, they’re speaking it with an accent. Accents are a product of the speakers native, first learned languages which then influences how they pronounce words from other languages. Generally, once a person hits first grade their particular accent is “locked-in”. Speech patterns change over a person’s lifetime, but there something that early language development that conditions the way we talk our entire lives.
The Common Tongue
Following the assumption that Common is the lingua franca of the Inner Sea that’d be our benchmark to measure other languages against, like our English. It’s not a terrible comparison either. The campaign setting for Golarion talks about Common having very similar grammar and terms to Azlanti with Varisian influences. While not derived from German proper, English is derived from Germanic languages and has a similar grammar structure. French and Latin provide English with 40-50% of its actual vocabulary. It’s also noted Common uses the ancient Jistka alphabet with Kelesh numerals, which is similar to English which uses the Latin alphabet and the Hindu-Arabic system of numbering.
Using the assumption of English as common, Varisian would be a romance language like Italian or French, Azlanti would be Germanic in sound and structure, and Kelesh would be Arabic or Amharic. This lines up pretty nicely to most depictions I see of places that speak Kelesh or Varisian. If the ancient Osirian God Thoth brought about Egyptian hieroglyphics we can make the assumption ancient Osiriani sounds like ancient Egyptian, while modern Osiriani sounds like modern Coptic, the current form of that language.
A Pirates Inflection
If we keep following this pattern of thinking we can probably match most languages on Golarion to an Earth equivalent, and its from this point its probably a good place to start developing accents for those sketchy accent switching pirates. Barnabas Harrigan is from the Kaava Lands in southern Mwangi and speaks Common, Mr. Plugg is native to the Shackles and speaks Common and Polygot, and Master Scourge isn’t given a point of origin but does natively speak Common.
For Mr. Plugg I believe giving him a South African-style accent is appropriate, thinking something like Leonardo DiCaprio from Blood Diamond. I think it fits the idea of a street child who probably learned bits and pieces of all sorts of Polygot to go along with his strong Common. For Barnabas Harrigan, a native of Mwangi I’m going to go with a Nigerian-style accent , which I think better exemplifies his rather mundane, stable childhood. Lastly, Master Scourge is the wildcard, he isn’t given a point of origin that I can find. He really fits the mold of a crusty pirate from Riddleport well. It’s not unreasonable to believe a pirate from Varisia would follow Chelish shipping down to Garund and set up camp. Scourge deserves that Newtonian pirate accent, even if it’s made up!
I really enjoyed this thought exercise and will probably expand upon it a bit later. Think I’m crazy, tell me. How do your characters and NPCs sound? If you’re unsure drop a line in the comments and we can go back and forth.