Sennight a dialect word?

This week, in the MA course on Late Modern English letters I teach, we read an article by Frances Austin about how William Clift (1775-1849) quickly lost any traces of his original dialect when he moved from his native Bodmin in Cornwall to London in 1793. One of the dialectal features Austin discusses is his use of the construction yesterday was (a) week, and she gives the following example:

  • the footman left us last monday was Sennight (6 April 1792)

Sennight (or Senight) is an interesting word, being a contraction from seven night(s), meaning “week”, and it has been in the English language since at least the thirteenth century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It is no longer very frequent today, and the OED notes for the eighteenth century that the word is dialectal.

Source: Wikipedia

In my own research I have come across the word in the language of Robert Lowth (1710-1787) and also in that of Jane Austen (1775-1817):

  • I propose being in Town abt. nex[t] Wednesday Sennight (Robert Lowth, 2 January 1769)
  • Our fate with Mrs L. & Miss E.  is fixed for this day senight (Jane Austen, 5-8 March 1814)
  • they leave home tomorrow senight (Jane Austen 21 April 1816)

Both writers were born in Hampshire, and sen(n)ight may indeed already have been dialectal during the second half of the eighteenth century.

Source: Wikipedia

I have recently become interested in the language of Belle van Zuylen (1740-1805), an aristocratic  Dutch writer of French literature, who had acquired English as well. To study the question of how good Belle van Zuylen’s English was, I have been graciously given access to a project led by Suzan van Dijk which aims at digitising her entire correspondence. And in searching the material for any evidence of English, I found the following reference to sennight:

  • Il y a quinze jours est parfaitement analogue à il y a huit jours, et je suis étonnée que les Hollandais disant veertien dagen, ne disent pas aussi seven dagen geleden. En anglais on dit Fourt nigt ago qui est la contraction de Fourteen nigts (quatorze nuits) mais on dit this day sennigt contraction de seven nigts (ce jour (il y a) sept nuits). Toutes les langues ont leur bizarreries auxquelles il faut se soumettre (Belle van Zuylen, July 1794).

“Bizar”, she calls the word! It is not entirely clear how or where Belle van Zuylen had learnt English, but it is clear from this quotation that she was quite familiar with the language. The quotation does suggest that sennight was perhaps more common at the time than being just a feature that was current in the Hampshire dialect. I’d be interested to have more instances of the word, to see what its exact status was at the time, so please let me have them if you know of any.


Austin, Frances (1994), The effect of exposure to standard English: The language of William Clift. In: Dieter Stein and Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade (eds.), Towards a Standard English 1600-1800. Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter. 285-313.

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Joseph Banks in a Dutch Track Shoot

About a year ago, I gave a workshop to our second-year students here at Leiden on eighteenth-century letter writing. To practice their newly acquired skills, the students had to produce a transcription of a letter by Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820), whose letters are available online through the website of the State Library of New South Wales. I promised that the best transcription would be published in this blog, and it was.

But there was a runner up, the transcription of a letter by Banks to his sister Sophia Banks, by Natasja Kosten and Kyra Macfarlane. The reason for this was that the students had taken the assignment to transcribe the text as closely as possible very literally, reconstructing the way the original letter had been folded:

The address panel

Opening the letter

One of the reasons I personally like this letter is that there is a reference to Banks travelling from The Hague (“a most beautiful town”) to Amsterdam by “Track Shoot”. Originally, Natasja and Kyra had been unable to identify the word, and no wonder, but that is what it is, an idiosyncratic rendering of the Dutch word trekschuit, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “A canal- or river-boat drawn by horses, carrying passengers and goods, as in common use in Holland; a track-boat” (s.v. trekschuit, treckschuit). The earliest quotation dates from 1696, and here we have another one for the eighteenth century. Banks’s spelling is not in the OED though.

Here is the transcription of the letter by Natasja and Kyra: Sir Joseph Banks to Sarah Sophia Banks.

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From Letters to Legislature

Do you love 18th/19th century letters and/or documents? Do you love to transcribe?

If you answered Yes, then the Transcribe Bentham Initiative might be just up your alley!

Transcribe Bentham is an initiative started by University College London, with the mission to make available the transcripts of Jeremy Bentham, 1748-1832, (and relations) that UCL has in its possession. The initiative is managed by UCL’s Bentham Project and Digital Humanities, and aided by the Computer Centre of UCL.

The transcriptions are made by volunteers, such as Iris (co-writer to this post and fellow Linguistics student at Leiden University) and myself, and checked by editors who check whether they agree with the transcription and re-read it for spelling errors and whether you used the right codes, as there are special codes such as “<lb/>” as enter and “&amp;” for an &.

The transcriptions themselves range from letters to the family, to official documentation relating to the use of pieces of land, to definitions of legal terms. Furthermore, not all transcripts are in English, but also in Latin, Greek and French (so in case you can read/speak/write those languages, give transcription a try and help further the progress of full transcriptions, which is at 32,01% at present).

An example of a transcription is 537/011/001, a letter by Jeremiah Bentham, relating some information about Jeremy Bentham as a toddler:

“Your sweet obliging Answer gave me a pleasure far beyond any
I have or cod have enjoyed since your Absence — and your little Jerry —
Boy I asure you seem’d to take a part in it with his Papa upon my
telling him it was a Letter from his dear Mama — he cryed Kish,
Kish — and Kiss’d it several times and when I ask’d him what it
was — he cryed Pape (for Paper) Mama”

That was the start of a young boy who would eventually become a great philosopher, jurist and the founder of utilitarianism. Furthermore, the ideas of equal opportunity promoted by Jeremy Bentham contributed to UCL’s policies and made it available that University College London was open to students of all races, classes, or religions and, most importantly for the women at that time, gender!

Here a fun anecdote about Jeremy’s obliviousness, age 12, already at Queen’s College, Oxford, 537/043/001:

“but Oh my Stupidity, I put it
into my pocket with a design to send it, but as it was not then
time I went about something else and forgot to send it. ’till
this morning when putting my hand in my pocket for something
else, I pulled out the letter designed for you: I believe
I was never much more vexed than I was then”

As you can see, even child prodigies can be forgetful! There is hope for us all yet!

P.S. In case you want to join Team Bentham and start transcribing, click here!


Information on Jeremy Bentham:
Information on Transcribe Bentham:
Letter by Jeremiah Bentham:
Letter by Jeremy Bentham:


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Jane Austen and the art of letter writing

Jane-Austen-Writing-DeskIs this a new image of Jane Austen? Would she have owned a writing desk like the one in the picture? And how would she have acquired the art of letter writing? Read all about it on OUPblog.

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Officially out today

Though the book was published several weeks ago already, the true publication date, so its actual birthday, is today, 20 February 2014. For a description of the book’s contents, look at OUP’s website, and feel free to get in touch if you want to learn more about it!

Cover of the book

The book received a mention at the website of the Dutch Jane Austen society, Jane

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Carriers of Closeness: the letters of Charlotte Brontë

…I am determined to write, for I should be sorry to appear a neglectful correspondent to one from whose communications I have derived, and still derive, so much pleasure (Smith 1995: II, 128).


Charlotte Brontë (1816–1855) wrote these words to her friend and publisher William Smith Williams on 18 October 1848. Charlotte Brontë is probably best known for her novel Jane Eyre, which was published in 1847 under the pseudonym Currer Bell. However, in her relatively short life she wrote several other novels as well as many letters to her publishers and her friends, many of which remain and can be read today.

For her BA thesis Annemarie Walop, a student at the University of Leiden, decided to try to assess the closeness of the relationship between Charlotte and her correspondents by looking at the opening formulas she used and at the level of linguistic involvement in her letters (Walop 2013). Her corpus consisted of 394 letters, written by Charlotte from 1848 to 1851.

On the basis of the methodology developed by Tieken (2009), Annemarie established a hierarchy of opening formulas for Charlotte Brontë’s letters, ranging from the most formal to the most informal formulas. Annemarie found that Charlotte used as many as nine different opening formulas, ranging from the formal Madam to the informal Dear Nell. She used different formulas for the same people as well, especially with new correspondents. She would use the most formal opening formula in her first letter, and in subsequent letters a less formal one. This was the result of a visit that had occurred in between the writing of the first and the subsequent letters. Annemarie also found that Charlotte varied in her use of Dear and My dear. Apparently, she did not use the forms with and without the possessive pronoun to differentiate between lesser and stronger degrees of formality.

Charlotte Brontë used the least formal forms of address in letters to her father and her closest friends Ellen Nussey and Mary Taylor, and she used the most formal forms of address to her business relations and to a lady of the nobility. The use of informal opening formulas corresponded to a higher level of closeness, whereas the use of formal ones agreed with a lesser closeness between Charlotte and her correspondents.

Annemarie also calculated Charlotte’s linguistic involvement with her correspondents in order to assess the strength of her relationship with them. She used the same linguistic features as Sairio (2005), which were the occurrence of the first person singular pronoun (ego-involvement), of the second person singular pronoun (interpersonal involvement), and of degree adverbs and evidential verbs (involvement with the subject matter). After adding up all the different frequencies, Annemarie found that Charlotte was most involved with some literary critics, and she was least involved with her father and one of her lifelong friends.

These results were unexpected, so Annemarie came up with a few possible explanations for the results. It might have been the case that Charlotte’s relationship with her father was not as close as is assumed, or that Charlotte’s nineteenth-century letters are different from the eighteenth-centuries letters that have been previously investigated by means of linguistic involvement. Or maybe Charlotte Brontë’s letters are simply the odd ones out?

(Summary of the thesis by Annemarie Walop.)


Sairio, Anni (2005). “‘Sam of Streatham Park’, a Linguistic study of Dr. Johnson’s membership in the Thrale family”. European Journal of English Studies, 9.1:21-35.

Smith, Margaret (1995). The Letters of Charlotte Brontë. 3 Volumes. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Tieken-Boon van Ostade, Ingrid (2009). An Introduction to Late Modern English. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP.

Walop, Annemarie (2013). “Carriers of closeness in correspondence: Opening formulas and linguistic involvement in Charlotte Brontë’s letters”. BA thesis, University of Leiden

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Just out

Earlier this week, my book In Search of Jane Austen: The Language of the Letters (OUP) was published. This is how it is described in the OUP linguistics catalogue that came in today:

OUP Linguistics catalogue

OUP Linguistics catalogue

And here is the missing image:

Image of the cover

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