Supersonic Man

January 12, 2020

the English accent is stupid

Filed under: fun,Rantation and Politicizing — Supersonic Man @ 9:01 pm

Americans generally respect the English accent. I assume attitudes are similar, if not more so, in Canada, Australia, and so on. (Maybe not so much in Ireland.) People think the English accent sounds classy and refined. But if you look into how the English “Received Pronunciation” accent came to be so different from those of the USA and Canada and Ireland, the reason turns out to be ridiculously lame.

Classy is the important word here. The difference arose precisely because people thought it sounded more classy and refined. Until about the year 1700, most people in England spoke quite similarly to those in Ireland or North America, pronouncing letters such as R and O as they were written instead of with peculiar distortions. But after that, throughout most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as economic opportunity started to become accessible to commoners, those who were financially or socially ambitious did their best to emulate the manners and styles of the classes above their own, as a way to make a better first impression and be taken more seriously. And a very popular way to do so during this period was to attend a class in “elocution”. A whole industry sprang up of teachers and tutors who would train their students in how to talk in a way that sounded upper-class. And some of these teachers knew their job better than others. What they taught was often not so much a copy as an amateurish mockery of how their betters actually talked. But by the end of the eighteenth century these teachings were being incorporated into the standard school curriculum, and by the end of the nineteenth the aristocracy were following along with the changes to the common speech, imitating an imitation of themselves.

(Speaking of class, I once heard an astute observation that when an American is trying to face down a threat, and attempting to sound more intimidating than usual, you can tell what social class they belong to by whether they start talking more black in order to sound street-tough, or start talking more Brit in order to sound privileged. For 90% of us it’s the former, but in loftier social circles the latter is still regularly heard.)

But the really silly part is where the accent the elocutionists were copying really came from. The answer to this starts in the reign of Queen Anne. As mentioned in my previous post, Anne was the last of the Stuart dynasty. Anne got pregnant seventeen different times, but none of her children lived past age two. Her sister Mary II, who preceded her on the throne (co-ruling with her husband William of Orange), had one miscarriage and no live children. So when it came time to put Anne’s successor on the throne, they had to look a lot farther afield than usual to find the “rightful” next in line. And who they came up with was her second cousin Georg Ludwig, Elector of the Duchy of Brunswick-Lüneburg (commonly called Hanover after its capital city).

When King George I took the throne in 1714, he spoke no English. He never did bother to master the language over his thirteen year reign. His son George II did speak English, but since he learned it as an adult, he of course had a German accent, as did the twenty-three political staffers that his father had brought over, and their families and servants. Only when they got to George III in 1760 did Britain once again have a monarch who grew up speaking English, and he was hardly the best role model for it because of his poor mental health.

The English accent which was spread by professional elocutionists has its origin in courtiers and toadies imitating the German accent of the Hanovers. And it wasn’t entirely just the Hanovers: before their time, William of Orange had spoken with a thick Dutch accent, and afterwards, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha married Victoria and brought a supplemental dose of German accent to the royal family, just to remind people how it’s done.

This is why the English accent of today often pronounces the short A as in German, and muffles the letter R as a vowel tone though it’s still used as a consonant. This doesn’t really explain how the long O turned into a dipthong, but I put that down to the errors of amateur mimicry. It’s the sort of thing that’s easy to do when exaggerating someone else’s accent. (Or maybe it came from trying to say Ö.) No positive reason exists for pronouncing English words this way; compared to American or Irish English, the ease and clarity of speech is objectively poorer. Since getting established as a norm the accent has continued to evolve, going in its own direction without any more German input.

If you listen to the various regional accents from around the edges of England, most of them are less affected by this Germanization, which was strongest in the central urban areas. But if you want to hear how English is supposed to sound without the affectations of the eighteenth century’s professional ass-kissers, you need to go at least as far as Ireland, and to hear the most accurate version, the place to go is Appalachia.

Though Americans do generally think that today’s standard English accent sounds classy and refined, people conversely also recognize that falsely affecting this accent is often a hallmark of a pretentious classist snob. Little do they realize that this actually applies to the accent as a whole: it only came to exist because pretentious affectation was widespread at a time when classist snobbery was the norm.

January 9, 2020

Just how Game-of-Thronesy was Olde England?

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry — Supersonic Man @ 10:59 am

All the scheming and backstabbing and murder in Game of Thrones was famously inspired by a power struggle in fifteenth century England known as the Wars of the Roses, in which the rival houses of Lancaster and York repeatedly waged civil wars to overthrow each other. The timeline went like this:

1399: Henry of Bolingbroke overthrows Richard II, ending the Plantagenet dynasty and founding the Lancaster one. (But Henry was himself a Plantagenet, making this house a “cadet branch” — the Lancaster name is from his mother’s side.) His army confiscates land and spreads ruin on all who oppose him. From now on, the court speaks English instead of French. Richard II dies imprisoned in the Tower of London, supposedly by starvation, which may have been self-inflicted.

1400-1410: Henry IV fends off numerous rebellions, plots, and assassination attempts, greatly aided by the ever increasing military prowess of his son and heir, Henry of Monmouth.

1410: Young Henry pressures his ailing father into handing over the majority of his power.

1413: Henry V succeeds his father. In the next few years he more or less conquers France. This, combined with concessions to anti-Lancaster factions and a general attitude of forgive-and-forget, cements his legitimacy and diminishes rebellions.

1422: Henry V dies young and is succeeded by the infant Henry VI. His father’s conquests start to unravel. The child is crowned King of France but never gets to rule it.

1453: The Hundred Years War ends with England almost entirely expelled from France. Henry VI suffers a mental breakdown and becomes unfit to rule (if he wasn’t already). For the next eight years he goes in and out of lucidity. His mother consolidates power behind the throne.

1455: Richard of York (another cadet Plantagenet) launches the first War of the Roses in an attempt to take the throne. Much of England decays into warlordism. He is executed in 1460.

1461: Richard’s son wins the war and takes the throne as Edward IV, establishing the York dynasty. Crucial backing came from the wealthy and powerful Earl of Warwick, known as the Kingmaker.

1470: Warwick, having not quite mustered enough clout to depose Edward himself, changes sides and joins the Lancastrians. With his resources, supporters of Henry VI march on London and retake power. Warwick apparently intends Henry to be his puppet.

1471: Edward IV deposes Henry VI for the second time, killing Warwick at the battle of Barnet. This time Henry dies in the Tower of London… whether accidentally or deliberately is not known.

1483: Edward V succeeds his father at age twelve, but a political scheme promptly leads to him and his brother being declared illegitimate. His regent the Duke of Gloucester seizes power as Richard III, and Edward and his brother go into the Tower for “protection”, and never come out. Edward’s loyalists attack, but Richard defeats them. Both sides of this battle are Yorkist.

1485: Henry Tudor (a distant cousin of the Lancasters) defeats Richard III in battle, and marries Edward V’s sister Elizabeth of York to unite the claims, ending the Wars of the Roses.

Yep, that is pretty darn game-of-thronesy (minus the HBO pornification factor, of course). Now, is this exceptional or is it typical?

Turns out, there’s quite a lot of this crap spread over the centuries. In Anglo-Saxon times, for instance, there were about five kings who gained power by conquest (some of them Danish), and two who found their paths to the throne cleared by their rivals suffering suspiciously convenient “accidents”. Several more won the throne through covert political struggles where we’ll probably never know what really happened.

The story is not too different in the time of the Normans and Plantagenets. Three kings took power by conquest, King John barely retained power in the first Barons’ War (which nearly resulted in Louis VIII of France seizing the country), Empress Matilda semi-deposed Stephen of Blois for a while before both factions were booted out by Henry II (the first Plantagenet), and in the second Barons’ War, Simon de Montfort seized power from Henry III for a couple of years but did not claim the kingship. Henry I was helped to power by another convenient death, and Edward III had to stage a coup against his own regent. And just as in Saxon times, the plots or rebellions or invasions that succeeded were just a fraction of the ones that were attempted. Henry II once put down a rebellion led by his own wife and sons.

In Tudor and Stuart times, things calmed down somewhat, but this time included the English civil war, which saw Oliver Cromwell and then Charles II win power on the battlefield. It was also during this period that “Bloody” Mary I seized power at the head of an army without needing to fight, and Elizabeth I had to fend off Mary Queen of Scots. A century and a half after Bloody Mary, William of Orange also arrived with an army. It may have been more or less ceremonial, but its presence is what persuaded the unpopular (and Catholic) James II to skedaddle. The important difference is that this time, William and Mary took power only on terms set for them by Parliament, which had essentially just used them as a lever to dislodge James. Traditional games of thrones were now generally a thing of the past.

The period was brought to a close by Anne, the successor of William and Mary, and last of the Stuart dynasty. It was under her that the component British countries were turned into the Kingdom of Great Britain (at a time when Scotland was in economic crisis and in no position to decline). Since that time, the succession has remained orderly and lawful, though George II did have to fend off one last failed usurpation in 1745, backed by Scots who’d been promised independence by the Stuart descendant they called “Bonnie Prince Charlie”. Under the Hanovers and Windsors the power of the throne has been steadily reduced, making it more ceremonial with every generation, and no longer worth fighting and killing for.

I hope I live to see the day when the process is completed, and Britain becomes a Republic in which there is no longer any such thing as a royal house.

January 4, 2020

the edge of space

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,science! — Supersonic Man @ 11:32 am

There’s a controversy about where “space” begins. The internationally accepted standard is the altitude of 100 km, which is known as the Kármán line. But in the USA, many advocate for the more lenient definition which says you’ve been to space if you rise to an altitude of only 80 km, or more traditionally, 50 miles. Which view is more correct? Well, when an orbiter reenters the atmosphere, the point when reentry heating starts to get significant is around 120 km, so in my view the 80 km line is definitely the less valid of the two.

In the end, I say both are bogus: you aren’t really in space until you get to at least 200 km up, high enough so that it’s possible to orbit the Earth a few times without promptly falling down from drag. You can’t orbit for very long at 200 km up — useful satellites start at about 300 km — but it is at least possible to orbit for a little while, like a day or so, at that altitude. At 100 km altitude, you are in the ionosphere, not in space, and probably won’t make it around the Earth even once. In fact, the ionosphere actually extends above most satellites… which is intentional, as this means they will eventually come down. Keeping most satellites this low is a policy which reduces the long term risk of “space junk”. But I would say that if you can orbit, you’re in space.

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