Critical Pronunciation Poll

I’m using Dava Sobel’s Longitude this week in my timekeeping class. The villain of the piece, as it were, is the Reverend Dr. Nevil Maskelyne, who promoted an astronomical method for finding longitude, and played a major role in delaying the payment to John Harrison for his marine chronometers. It’s a good story, with lots of science and engineering and politicking.

There’s one critical flaw, though, in terms of me teaching this book, which is that I don’t really know how to say Maskelyne’s name. And even Wikipedia is letting me down, here, by not providing a phonetic rendering of his name. Which means I’m depending on you, my wise and worldly readers, to help me figure this out:


Nobody had even begun to think about quantum physics during Maskelyne’s lifetime, so you’re only allowed to pick one answer, not a quantum superposition of multiple answers.

Comments

  1. #1 Neil Bates
    February 1, 2012

    Uh, I think that last one is supposed to appeal to a certain clique … The kind that go looking for “buttons” in the desert night, with a copy of “The Teachings of Don Juan” in the back pocket of their dusty jeans …

  2. #2 MRW
    February 1, 2012

    The History Channel pronounced it “mask-uh-lin” when talking about someone else with the same last name. Around the 2-minute mark here:

  3. #3 Eric Lund
    February 1, 2012

    Truth be told, I have no idea. Plausible arguments could be made for any of the first four choices. But since radio button polls do not allow superpositions, I am forced to collapse the state in favor of the obvious joke.

    FWIW, Wikipedia has entries on three other people named Nevil Maskelyne, and it doesn’t give pronunciations for any of the others, either.

  4. #4 Tim Eisele
    February 1, 2012

    I personally would reflexively pronounce it as “Mask-uh-line”. But thinking about what the British often tend to do to names like this*, I expect that the way Maskelyne actually pronounced it himself was probably closer to “Mask-lin”. So that’s what I checked as being most likely “correct”.

    *Like the classic “Fetherstonhaugh” being pronounced “Fanshaw”, for example.

  5. #5 Jolyon
    February 1, 2012

    I’ve always thought it was “Mass-keh-line” :)

  6. #6 Flavin
    February 1, 2012

    I would say “Mask-eh-line” rather than the first choice, “Mask-uh-line”.

  7. #8 Jolyon
    February 1, 2012

    I’ve always thought it was “Mass-keh-line” :)

  8. #9 jim
    February 1, 2012

    I doubt it matters, as long as you are consistent. No-one’s going to be able to check you. And, even if they hear someone else using a different pronunciation, who’s to say which is right?

  9. #10 Wilson
    February 1, 2012

    jim @9 raises a good point.

    Even different people with the ‘same’ last name pronounce it different ways.

    For instance: the last name of Guy Laliberte, the current CEO of the Cirque du Soleil, is pronounced “La-lee-bear-TAY”, but the last name of Connie Laliberte, world champion curling skip, is pronounced “LAlli-bertie”.

    The difference comes from the fact that Guy lives in Quebec and Connie in the prairies, but it’s not the only name (or English word, even) that has multiple pronunciations.

  10. #11 Kea
    February 1, 2012

    I haven’t read the book, but strongly suspect a European bias. The Polynesians were, much to the astonishment of Cook et al, navigating the open Pacific, while the Europeans hugged the coastlines. They did not have chronometers, or any European technology. Is this knowledge discussed in the book? Could it not, do you think, have reasonably influenced the opinion of opponents to the chronometer solution?

  11. #12 Vagueofgodalming
    February 1, 2012

    I’d go with MRW at comment 2.

  12. #13 sam c
    February 2, 2012

    As an Englander, I concur with MRW at #2 and the History Channel: “mask” pronounced with a short or long “a”, some sort of schwaey vowel, then “lin”, not “line”, not “leen”.

    That’s how I would pronounce it too if I’d never heard it spoken. How would the rev himself have pronounced it? Doesn’t matter, you’re fine if you adopt any reasonable variant and stick to it.

  13. #14 beckyfh
    February 2, 2012

    When I talk about Maskelyne (which I do quite a lot, as a curator at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich) I say Mask-e-lin, ir something similar, as most commenters have suggested. This probably isn’t what he said. One clue is his knowledge of the name’s French origins, another is that I’ve seen his name written by a contemporary as Masculine. That, of course, begs the question of how that was pronounced in the 18th century!

    I’d also like to point out that Sobel would be the first to admit that in the process of creating a good story, she set up a hero and villain and a rivalry that didn’t really exist – it perhaps only in Harrison’s mind. The timekeeping and astronomical methods of finding longitude were always complementary rather than rival. There’s plenty on this over on the blog accompanying our research project on the history of the Board of Longitude (nmm.ac.uk/longitude).

    In reference to comment 11 above, I think that any surprise at Polynesian navigation methods from Cook et al was more to do with their expectation of inferiority of the native people’s rather. It’s not true that European navigators only hugged coastlines, and there were plenty of ways of estimating position: dead-reckoning, sailing latitudes, watching out for flora and fauna, changing weather and tides etc. Remember, also, that Cook’s first voyage was undertaken without a chronometer and only partly with the aid of the lunar distance method.

  14. #15 Thony C.
    February 2, 2012

    KEA wrote. I haven’t read the book, but strongly suspect a European bias. The Polynesians were, much to the astonishment of Cook et al, navigating the open Pacific, while the Europeans hugged the coastlines.

    Given that Sobel’s book is about the attempts of European scientists and inventors in the eighteenth century to develop a method of exactly determining longitude whilst at sea to say that has a European bias is at the best a strange claim.

    If the book were a history of marine navigation, which it isn’t, and included nothing on the history of Polynesian navigation then your accusations would be highly justified.

    However, for all their amazing achievements at deep sea navigation the Polynesians never developed a method to accurately determine either latitude or longitude.

  15. #16 Thony C.
    February 2, 2012

    In the interests of the histories of science, astronomy and navigation it should be pointed out that Sobel’s book massively distorts the historical facts concerning Harrison and Maskelyne. Although the book is an excellent read and is almost with certainty the best selling popular history of science book of the last fifty years it is highly inaccurate.

    By wrongly making Maskelyne the devil of the piece and Harrison the long suffering hero Sobel actually seriously distorts what actually took place in the eighteenth century.

    For a more accurate picture of the situation I suggest you regularly read the The Board of Longitude Blog, which is a blog written by the participants of a major research project into the real history of the eighteenth century search for a method to determine longitude at sea.

  16. #17 Kea
    February 2, 2012

    Thony, I fail to see how any decent history of European longitude science in the 18th century can possibly fail to discuss the history of marine navigation, since marine navigation is such a crucial element in 18th century European history, full stop. Especially given (1) the navy’s crucial role in the evidence provided in the competition between Maskelyne and Harrison and (2) the major influence of both their methods for shipping routes (think Captain Cook circa 1770) (3) the preference for Maskelyne’s method well into the 19th century, due to cost factors.

  17. #18 Thony C.
    February 2, 2012

    Kea: Sobel’s book is largely about John Harrison’s long-year struggles to design and construct an accurate and reliable marine chronometer and his, in Sobel’s version of the story, ‘battles’ with the Board of Longitude.

    Even including the British Navy’s role in the story, which is only peripheral for Sobel, would not necessitate a discussion of Polynesian navigation as the methods of astral navigation employed by Polynasian seafarers and those used by the British Navy in the 18th century are fundamental different.

    The ‘second method’ (there were actually more than two in discussion), the lunar distance method, was not Maskelyne’s but first described in the 16th century by Johannes Werner and realized in the 18th century by Tobias Mayer. The preference for the lunar distance method was not purely because of cost factors.

  18. #19 Sili
    February 2, 2012

    Try to get a hold of the BBC pronunciation unit. Or pick up J.C. Wells’ Longman Pronunciation Dictionary from you Uni’s library.

    Or if that fails, write the man himself. Or Languagehat.

  19. #20 Chad Orzel
    February 2, 2012

    Thony: In the interests of the histories of science, astronomy and navigation it should be pointed out that Sobel’s book massively distorts the historical facts concerning Harrison and Maskelyne. Although the book is an excellent read and is almost with certainty the best selling popular history of science book of the last fifty years it is highly inaccurate.

    It certainly tells a suspiciously tidy story. But in a way, that makes it perfect for the class, as an example of the need to be skeptical of single sources, no matter how well they’re written. The Board of Longitude blog is a very nice and compact counterpoint, and I’ll certainly be providing links to it during and after tomorrow’s class.

  20. #21 Thony C.
    February 2, 2012

    Current British pronunciation of Maskelyne’s name would be something like Mask-e-lin. How it was pronounced in the eighteenth century is of course an entirely different matter.

  21. #22 Neil Bates
    February 2, 2012

    BTW, I meant the 5th choice, not the last choice. No big deal.

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