or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Hump Day

Wednesday is named after Woden, otherwise known as the top dog in Wagner's Ring Cycle, Wotan, also otherwise known as Odin. Wotan was in charge of, among other things, poetic inspiration, as was the Roman equivalent, Mercury, and thus French "mercredi" is "Mercury's day". The Germans, though, didn't name their mid-week day after a god; for some reason, they named it after the mid-week, and so German "Wednesday" is "Mittwoch". There are in fact a number of languages that number or position their days of the week, and German simply took one of these; it did this a millennium ago, prior to which the day was, in fact, called "Wodanstag". (Finnish has a similar name: after the Tuesday-like "tiistai", they called their Wednesday "keskiviikko", the second half of which is self-explanatory.)


Yesterday I mentioned in passing the terseness of English numbers from one to ten, and so of course I wondered to myself why one of the words has to have two syllables when all the rest have one. I didn't have to wonder long, because I knew that all ten of the words come directly from German and are almost identical to them: the German equivalents are "eins, zwei, drei, vier, fünf, sechs, sieben, acht, neun, zehn". So we can blame the Germans for the two-syllable "seven". (As for why theirs has two syllables, I have no idea.)

But, with typical English efficiency*, we did in fact find a way to bash it down to one syllable: not in the counting numbers, but in a compound word. The word "fortnight" has an antique air to it, and for that reason, I think most people probably don't know that it's a compression of "fourteen nights", which is to say "two weeks". (The word is actually Middle English: it began as "fourtene night", became joined into "fourtenight", and then was squeezed even further into "fortnight".) What even more people, I'm sure, don't know is that there was a corresponding term for a single week, "sennight", likewise a compression of the Old English equivalent of "seven nights".

Two qualities of English can turn "seven", in certain contexts, into a one-syllable word. First, unstressed syllables have a way of vanishing in very casual speech: the "-ing" suffix, for instance, can disappear in two-syllable words, converted into the sound "-n" which is run together with the preceding vowel, as in "going" (which can come out rhyming with "phone") and "saying" (which becomes "sane"). And second, because stress patterns are so crucial in English, the terminal sound of a word can merge with a succeeding vowel sound: "It was almost..." is pronounced "It wuh zalmost..."--again, in casual speech.

Therefore, when we're saying the counting numbers out loud, "seven" can have a single syllable: try it yourself and unless you're deliberately enunciating, you might well find yourself saying "...six sev nate nine...".

* Sorry, Tony Pius.


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