Monday, June 5, 2017

The names of the days of the week, Part 1: Introduction

[This entry comes from first section ("Introduction") of Chapter 20 ("The names of the days of the week") of Part II of the open-source textbook Spanish-English Cognates: An Unconventional Introduction to Spanish Linguistics.]

The seven-day week

English Monday and Spanish lunes are not cognates and neither are any of the other days of the week, but they are in a way equivalent since they both descend from analogous phrases that meant ‘day of the Moon’. English Monday, for example, is derived from the word Moon and Spanish lunes is derived from the word luna, also meaning ‘moon’ in Latin.

The story of the names of the days of the week in English and Spanish is quite interesting and shows similarities between two systems that were obviously related, even if we are not strictly speaking dealing with cognates. For the most part, in English and Spanish, the names of the days of the week are derived from the names of pre-Christian deities in the Roman world and, in the case of English, also partially of the Anglo-Saxon worlds.

Originally, the Romans had had an 8-day week centered around market/rest days known as nūndinae (Eng. nundines), which they inherited from the Etruscans.[1] However, between the first and the third centuries of the Empire, they replaced it with a 7-day-week calendar derived from the calendars of Babylonian and Assyrian astrology, in which the seven days were named after heavenly bodies. In other words, the Roman names for the days of the week that Romance languages inherited were not the original ones the Romans used, but the ones they gradually adopted after the first century CE. The seven-day system was officially adopted by emperor Constantine (321 CE), by which time the old system was no longer in use.

Dividing time into periods of 7 or 8 days was a rather arbitrary matter for which there was no particular good reason. The ancients reckoned time by lunar calendars and a lunar month has roughly 29.5 days which is almost divisible by 7 (7x4=28), and that may have played a role. Also, the number 7 was held in special high regard in the ancient world, since it was thought to be special and to have magical properties. For instance, there were thought to be seven planets, the classical planets. By planet the ancients meant luminous body in the sky that was not fixed, that moved. This included the Moon and the Sun, of course, which are not today considered planets.

The seven-day cycle for the week has its roots in the Ancient Near East. It is found in the Jewish Bible, for example, but it is no doubt older than that. The seven-day week was used by the ancient Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and it was even adopted later by India and China as well.

The names of the days of the week in the Greek and Roman traditions

The Greeks assigned names to the days based on the seven classical planets—the sun, the moon, and the five planets visible to the naked eye—named after seven of their gods.[2] Romans calqued the Greek system, including the names for the days of the week. In other words, they did not borrow the words themselves but copied and adapted—that is, they made literal or quasi-literal translations—of the naming system (cf. Part I, Chapter 1, §1.4.2). The following are the names of the days of the week in Greek and their Latin calques (loan translations):

Greek name
Latin name
ἡμέρᾱ Ἡλίου
hēmérā Hēlíou
diēs Sōlis
‘day of the Sun’
ἡμέρᾱ Σελήνης
hēmérā Selḗnēs
diēs Lūnae
‘day of the Moon’
ἡμέρᾱ Ἄρεως
hēmérā Áreōs
diēs Martis
‘day of Mars’
ἡμέρᾱ Ἑρμοῦ
hēmérā Hermoû
diēs Mercuriī
‘day o Mercury’
ἡμέρᾱ Διός
hēmérā Diós
diēs Iōvis
‘day of Jupiter’
ἡμέρᾱ Ἀφροδῑ́της
hēmérā Aphrodī́tēs
diēs Veneris
‘day of Venus’
ἡμέρᾱ Κρόνου
hēmérā Krónou
diēs Saturnī
‘day of Saturn’

The names of the days of the week in other Romance languages have the same source as the traditional Latin ones, but for the names for Saturday and Sunday, which come from Church Latin in the Christian tradition, as we shall see. The names for the days in Portuguese are different because they stem from the Ecclesiastical (Church) tradition.[3]

The names of the days of the week in English started off as calques of the Latin names. The ancestor of the English language (and of the other Germanic languages) on the European continent calqued and adopted the Latin names, which is why there are so many similarities which we can still tell. Below you can see the names of the days in Old English and their meaning.

Modern English
Old English
‘Sun’s day’
‘Moon’s day’
‘Tiw’s day’
‘Wodan’s (Odin’s) day’
‘Þunor’s (Thor’s) day’
‘Frige’s day’
‘Saturn’s day’

We recognize in some of the English names of the week the names of planets and other celestial bodies (Moon, Mars, etc.). Others contain the names of Germanic gods that were thought to be equivalent to Roman gods. Because of common Proto-Indo-European descent and because of close contact during the first 500 years of our era, there are strong similarities between the pantheons of Roman, Greek, and Germanic mythologies.

We will look at the source of the names for the days of the week in turn. All but the last two come from the names they had in Latin but, as we can see, the first part of the name (diēs) has been dropped, though it was optional for a while in Old Spanish. We will start with the day for Tuesday, and then proceed to discuss Monday, which requires further elaboration. But first, we will take a look at the word for ‘day’ in Spanish and its source, which is at the bottom of some interesting cognates.

A note on capitalization

You will have no doubt noticed that the names of the days of the week are not capitalized in Spanish, whereas they are capitalized in English. The same thing applies to the names of the months of the year, which are capitalized in English but not in Spanish. This is a mere orthographic convention that differs from English to Spanish. It would seem that English has chosen to treat these nouns as proper nouns, which are always capitalized in both English and Spanish. Spanish, on the other hand, has chosen to treat them as common nouns, which are not capitalized in either language. Remember, however, that in English, common nouns, as well as adjectives, are capitalized if they are derived from a proper noun, e.g. Christian (< Christ), Bostonian (< Boston), etc., which is not the case in Spanish, e.g. cristiano (< Cristo), bostoniano (< Boston), etc.

Another noticeable area in which capitalization differs in English and Spanish has to do with the names of languages, which are always capitalized in English but not capitalized in Spanish. It would seem that the rationale for not capitalizing names of languages in Spanish is related to the convention not to capitalize adjectives. In Spanish, adjectives are never capitalized, whereas in English they are capitalized only if they are derived from proper nouns. Since the names of languages are almost always derived from adjectives, e.g. inglés, español, francés, etc, it makes sense for them not to be capitalized in Spanish. On the other hand, names of languages that are not derived from adjectives, such as euskera or esperanto are also not capitalized in Spanish

For more information on the use of capital letters in Spanish, see chapter 4 of Ortografía de la lengua española (2010), by Real Academia Española y Asociación de Academias de la Lengua Española. The chapter is titled El uso de las letras mayúsculas y minúsculas.[i]

[1] They were so called because the nundine came every ninth day, counting the previous nundine, which is how the Romans reckoned time periods, since the word nūndinae is derived from nōnus ‘ninth’ and diēs ‘day’.

[2] The word planet did not mean then what it means now. For the ancients, the planets were the luminous objects in the sky that were not fixed. The word planet (Sp. planeta) comes Greek πλανήτης (planētēs) what meant ‘wanderer, that wonders. It was actually short for στέρες πλανται(asteres planetai) ‘wandering stars’, star-like objects that moved across the ‘celestial sphere’ relative to the fixed stars.

[3] As for why the names of the days of the week are different in Portuguese, it has to do with a very influential 6th century bishop known as Martin of Braga (in Latin, Martinus Bracarensis, and in Portuguese Martinho de Braga). In his effort to convert the Germanic Suevi in his region from their Arian Christian faith to the Catholic Christian one, he proposed changing the names of the days of the week from the names of pagan gods to the religious names given in the fourth century to the days of Easter week. Only the names of the days that had pagan origins were changed, with Saturday and Sunday remaining as sábado and domingo (as in Spanish). The rest were changed to segunda-feira (Monday), terça-feira (Tuesday), quarta-feira (Wednesday), quinta-feira (Thursday), and sexta-feira (Friday). The word feira comes from Lat. fēria (a back formation of the plural noun fēriae), which meant ‘day of rest due to a festivity, festival, holiday’. This noun is cognate with Sp. feria and Eng. fair.

[i] Cf. A bit dated information on capitalization can be found in the Diccionario panhispánico de dudas (2005) available online:

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