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.
- 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.
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.