Do you know what day it is yet? I don’t, or at least I won’t tell. That would date this piece, and my work is timeless. It doesn’t matter. Last time I asked this question I spent twenty paragraphs writing about the origins of the calendar and its months. That’s entirely off base. This time, we’ll get to days. I promise. But first, let’s talk about the sun and the moon.
In the previous piece, I touched on the epic battle between solar and lunar calendars through history. Recap: lunar calendars have the advantage of being simpler, in that any date-related uncertainty can be eliminated through the science of looking up, but they’re disadvantaged by the fact that the Earth, so far, does not revolve around the moon, and thus they cannot accurately predict the length of seasons. Solar calendars, by comparison, are advantageous in their ability to correctly estimate the amount of time the Earth takes to revolve around the sun, but they come with the downside that they’re complicated enough to warrant a full post on bengrapevine.com.
The two battled fiercely in the battlefield of our hearts, but it was the solar calendar who emerged victorious, werewolves be damned. Almost everyone in the world who uses a calendar uses a solar calendar. But solar calendars aren’t solely solar. A day is the length of time the Earth takes to revolve around the sun, but the idea of a month holds no importance in the solar realm. Instead, its origins lie in the lunar month, the amount of time it takes the moon to go through all of its phases. The words month and moon come from the same linguistic neighborhood. Neat!
Similarly, a week is meaningless in the context of the sun. A solar year needs 365.256 (ish) days, but there’s no ruling on how those days should be ordered. A week could have five, ten, or fifty days for all the sun cares. A lunar month, though, was traditionally considered 28 days long. Within that context, seven days is about the amount of time it takes for the moon to wax or wane a quarter of its face. Today, we know that a scientific lunar month lasts over 29 days, which would throw all of this out of consideration if it weren’t already thrown out of consideration centuries ago when we moved on from moon time.
In the previous installment of this series, I focused on the Roman calendars, because those were the only ones I knew much about. In this piece, we’ll be focusing mostly on the Roman calendars, because those are the only ones I know much about. According to Live Science, the Roman calendar’s tradition of utilizing the seven-day week was an adaptation taken from Babylonian tradition. Before adopting seven as their number of choice, the Romans used a system called the “nundial cycle”, created by the Etruscans, the collective dads of Rome. The word “nundial” comes directly from the Latin words for “nine” and “day”. Can you guess how many days were in the nine day cycle? That’s right: eight. This is because Romans used inclusive counting, which I briefly attempted to understand and now refuse to entertain. While our system of exclusive counting makes the phrase “I’ll be there in three days” said on a Monday mean “I’ll be there on Thursday”, in the Romantic tradition, you’d count Monday as day one, Tuesday as day two, and Wednesday as day three. You’ll be there on Wednesday. It’s not that complicated, but there still aren’t nine days in an eight day week. That’s bad math.
The Romans officially adopted the seven day week under Constantine in 321 AD, but by that time, the big brains of Roman society had long since welcomed it into their homes. The Romans named five of their days after the gods of the Roman pantheon, after whom they had also named the planets. The remaining two were named after the sun and the moon and their associated deities. Together, these days were dies Solis (named for Sol, the sun), dies Lunae (for Luna, the moon), dies Martis (after Mars, the Roman god of war), dies Mercurii (Mercury, a messenger and god of venture capitalism), dies Jovis (after Jupiter, the big god, the Zeus of the Roman world), dies Veneris (after Venus, the goddess of love), and dies Saturni (after Saturn, the god of having a good time).
If you speak a Romance language, these original Latin names are probably familiar. Languages like French and Spanish retained the Roman names for all of the weekdays, but dies Solis and dies Saturni were lost in the aftermath of the Christianization of Europe and replaced by the Christian God in the form of the “Lord’s Day” (domingo in Spanish, dimanche in French) and the celebration of the Sabbath (sábado in Spanish, samedi in French). Other Romance languages, like Italian, Romanian, and Catalan follow the same pattern.
In the Germanic languages of Northern Europe, like German, Dutch, and English, the linguistic origins of the names of these days isn’t as clearly linked to Rome. Make no mistake, though, the names of the days in most Germanic languages do (secretly) have their roots in the Roman tradition. Two of the most obvious shared roots are Sunday and Monday, direct translations of dies Solis and dies Lunae. The next four are all similar to the original Roman days in that they take their names from gods, this time the gods of the Germanic and Old Norse pantheons instead of the Roman. The Germanic god of war, Tiw, gives his name to Tuesday, the same day allocated to Mars, his Roman counterpart.
The remaining three days are named after Odin, the biggest guy and the Jupiter or Zeus of Northern Europe, Thor, the Norse storm god, and Freya, the Norse Venus. Odin, also known as Woden, gave his name to Wednesday, Thor to Thursday, and Freya (sometimes rendered “Frigg”) to Friday. Instead of naming the final day of the week after another of their gods, the Northerners paid tribute to the Romans. When their child tongues lost dies Saturnii to the Sabbath, the Northern Europeans found it and added it to their week as Saturday.
These are the rules followed by most of the Romance and Germanic languages of Europe, but they’ve also found homes elsewhere. The Romantic tradition is echoed by Celtic languages like Irish (Domhnaigh, Luain, Máirt, Sathairn) and Welsh (Sul, Llun, Mawrth, Mercher, Iau, Gwener, Sadwrn), and further-off languages like Filipino (Lúnes, Mártes, Miyérkules, Huwebes, Biyernes, Sábado). The native Maori language of New Zealand also names its weekdays after the planets associated with the Roman day-gods. Borrowing from German, the unrelated Finnish language gives its days names like Sunnuntai, Maanantai, Tiistai, and Torstai.
Even further off, the languages of the Indian subcontinent have a tendency to name their days after celestial bodies who also share the names of gods. Much like the parallel Roman and German traditions, Sunday and Monday tend to be named after the sun and the moon, and Tueday is usually named after Mangala, the Hindu god of war.
The languages of Northern India share a linguistic root with the languages of Europe, together forming the Indo-European Language Family. Further off, the unrelated languages of Eastern Asia usually name their days after the traditional Chinese elements: fire, water, wood, metal, and earth, but these are also the names given to the five planets nearest to Earth. The order is the same: Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, Saturn. Notably, the first two days take their names from the sun and the moon directly.
Languages influence each other all the time. Words regularly jump between tongues of variable relation whenever need emerges; in English, we borrow “chocolate” from the Nahuatl xocotl by way of Spanish. Kindergarten comes from German, Gung-ho from Mandarin, shampoo from Hindi, and algebra from Arabic (What do all these words have in common? That’s right!). Most of our English vocabulary comes from historical precedent and neighbor languages; we take much more from German, French, and Latin, than we do from Persian, Japanese, and Russian.
The calendar is different. The days of the week seem to transcend the boundaries of more natural cultural growth, because our modern calendar and its seven day week is a technological innovation. It’s not something that can be easily and naturally observed by people living across the world all at once, but instead something purposefully developed and then exported. The words for “flower” in German, Malay, and Japanese are “Blume”, “Bunga”, and “Hana” respectively (relying on Google Translate). The words for “computer” are “Computer”, “Komputer”, and “Konpyuta”.
The borrowing of technological names isn’t always universal. Even in the computer example, the results are cherry-picked; words for computer in French, Irish, Arabic, and Mandarin are all etymologically different from the original English term. Other examples exist, though, like the Filipino and Turkish words for bicycle, “bisikleta” and “bisiklet”. The names of inventions and technological innovations move differently compared to traditional language. There is no reason for the days of the week to be named after either planets or gods, yet so many major languages all around the world do just that. The traditional Hebrew and Islamic lunar calendars tend to number their days rather than name them after anything in particular, though notably both, like most modern Romance languages, name Saturday after the sabbath.
Similarly, exceptions exist within the systems I’ve written about here. Most Romance languages take their day names directly from their Latin roots with a little post-Christian flair, but Portuguese bucks the trend completely and names its days numerically, like the Hebrew and Islamic calendars (Saturday and Sunday are still named after the sabbath and God, respectively). Also, while most Germanic languages agree that Wednesday should be named after Woden, at the core of them all, Germany ruins everything by calling it “Mittwoch” (midweek). Most Germans won’t dispute that Saturday is called “Samstag”, but some instead refer to it as “Sonnabend”, or Sunday Eve.
Languages are weird. Put in the context of their neighbors, they’re a sort of puzzle whose solution isn’t as linear as we’d like it to be, but there’s a sort of natural beauty evident in the patterns of how we communicate, a beauty replicated thereafter in the methods we choose to transcribe and spread those communications. We don’t choose what we call the weekdays, that decision was made long ago and exists today as a sort of living fossil of humanity and its choices. Not only that, it’s a historic marker of the linguistic habits of humans, then and now. China choosing to follow the European trend of naming days after planets is as interesting as Portugal choosing not to. Some technological innovations are so recent that we can see their linguistic debates play out in real time; the Japanese language adapted the English word for computer naturally, but French chose not to (shout-out to the immortals over at Académie Française — that’s really what they call themselves). At the end of the day, languages are a product of the people who speak them, and just as our communication is limited by the languages we speak, our languages are created (and limited) by our natural patterns of communication.
- Keeping Time: Origins of the Days of the Week by Robert Coolman for Live Science
- Week from Encyclopedia Britannica
Image: Jean-Pol GRANDMONT on Wikipedia (Photo of Colossal Statue of Mars), on Calendar image from Pixabay.