Saturday, September 2, 2017

The names of the months, Part 2: The first four months

[This entry is an excerpt from Chapter 22, "The calendar and the names of the months", of Part II of the open-source textbook Spanish-English Cognates: An Unconventional Introduction to Spanish Linguistics.]


The fact that our solar calendar has months of around 30 days, as we have seen, is a direct result of the fact that at one point time was reckoned by the phases of the moon, which are approximately a month in length (29.5 days). The Roman calendar originally had ten months. The names of the first four of the original ten Roman months in Latin were derived from the names of Roman gods and goddesses, perhaps because of their connection to the agricultural cycle. Actually, the name of one of the months, April, is not as clearly derived from the name of a god as the other ones are, as we shall see.

The following are the names of those first four months in the early Roman calendar that consisted of only ten months. Note that the numbers of the months do not correspond to their current numbers. As we shall see, two more months were added to the calendar at a later point and those months were added at the beginning of the year, not at the end, which resulted in the numbered months to be off by two. The names of these four months are shortened from phrases containing the noun mēnsis ‘month’, which was later elided. The remaining parts were originally possessive adjectives. Thus, we find here a case of ellipsis of the noun in a noun+adjective phrase which resulted in the adjective being nominalized or becoming a noun.

Month 1: mārtĭus (mēnsis) ‘(month) of Mars’

The first month was named after the Roman god Mārs (accusative: Mārtem; regular stem: Mārt‑)), the god of war (cf. Part II, Chapter 21, §21.3.2). This god is also the source of the name of one of the days of the week, namely Lat. mārtis ‘of Mars’ from where comes the name of the day martes ‘Tuesday’ in Spanish (cf. Part II, Chapter 21).

The possessive adjective mārtĭus (mārt‑ĭ‑us) ‘Martian, of Mars’ was derived from the stem mārt‑ of the god’s name and the derivational suffix ‑ĭ‑ that turned nouns into adjectives, plus the inflectional first declension inflexional ending ‑us. This possessive adjective was similar in meaning to the genitive case wordform of the name Mars, namely mārtis that we just saw. It is from the word mārtĭus that that we get the month names Eng. March ~ Sp. marzo.

Sp. marzo is a patrimonial Spanish word which displays the sound change from Latin ‑tĭ‑ (before another vowel) to Old Spanish ‑ʦ̪‑ and, then, to Modern Spanish ‑z‑, pronounced [θ] or [s], depending on the dialect (cf. Part I, Chapters 7, 10, and 11).


Eng. March is a loanword from Old French dialectal march(e), also a patrimonial descendant of mārtĭus in this language. The more common Old French spelling of this word was marz. In Modern French, it is mars.

In later Roman times, another adjective was derived from the stem mārt‑ĭ‑ of mārtĭus, by addition of the third declension adjectival suffix ‑āl‑, resulting in mārtĭālis (mārt‑ĭ‑āl‑is) ‘of or belonging to Mars or war’ (because it is a third declension suffix, it takes the nominative inflection ‑is‑, which is both masculine and feminine, cf. Part I, Chapter 8). This is the source of Eng. martial /ˈmaɹ.ʃəl/ ~ Sp. marcial /maɾ.ˈθi̯al/, as in Eng. martial law ~ Sp. ley marcial, and Eng. martial arts ~ Sp. artes marciales. Not all phrases formed with this word exist in both languages. Thus, Eng. martial music is música militar in Spanish and  Eng. court martial, a mid-17th century phrasal loanword from French, literally ‘war court’, translates into Spanish as tribunal de guerra or consejo de guerra.

Eng. martial is a 14th century loanword from Latin. Sp. marcial is also a Latin loanword, first attested in the early 17th century, in Cervantes’ El Quijote. Note that the Latin ‑tial ending was changed to ‑cial in Spanish spelling, as usual in Spanish words from Latin. That is because in Old Spanish, the Latin letter combination ‑ti between two vowels came to be pronounced the same way as the Latin sound combination ‑ci anywhere, namely [ʦ̪i] or [ʣ̪i], depending on the context. Other words where we can see the Lat. t ~ Sp. c alternation are: ausencia < absentia (cf. Eng. absence), potencia < potentia (cf. Eng. potency), gracia < gratia (cf. Eng. grace), ciencia < scientia (cf. Eng. science). Note that English cognates tend to have a c also, if they came into the language through French, but not otherwise, as in the case of Eng. martial ~ Sp. marcial, or Eng. presidential ~ Sp. presidencial.

Most other European languages also have names for this month that descend from the Latin word either through natural descent or through borrowing, e.g. Catalan març, Portuguese março, Italian marzo /ˈmaɾ.ʦ̪o/, German März, Norwegian and Swedish mars, Danish marts, Hellenistic Greek μάρτιος (Mártios), Russian март (mart), Polish marzec, Turkish mart, Arabic مارس (mars), and Basque martxo (another, autochthonous or homegrown Basque name for this month is epail ‘pruning month’, from epai ‘cut, prune’).

Month 2: aprīlis (mēnsis)

The name of the second Roman month was aprīlis, from where we get Eng. April and Sp. abril. It is not totally clear what the origin of this word is and there are several hypotheses. Some believe that it comes from the name of an Etruscan goddess Apru, which would be derived from or related to the Greek φροδίτη (Aphrodítē), known as Aphrodite in English and Afrodita in Spanish. Aphrodite was the Greek goddess of beauty and love, equivalent to the Roman goddess Venus.

The Etruscans exerted great influence on early Rome and the Etruscans themselves were greatly influenced by Greek culture, which is why this theory makes sense. However, the existence of an Etruscan name Apru is only hypothesized and it is not attested in Etruscan writing. We do know that the Etruscans themselves called the same month Cabreas. On the other hand, another connection between Aphrodite and this month is that in Roman religion, Venus was the tutelary deity (guardian, patron or protector) of this month.

Of course, the Romans themselves did not know the origin of the name of this month. Some Roman authors speculated that the name of the month was related to the verb aperīre ‘to open’, the source of patrimonial Sp. abrir ‘to open’. The reason would obviously be that this is the month when many plants and flowers open up after the winter months.

English got the name of this month from Old French, first attested around the year 1300. In Old French, it was avril, as it is still is in Modern French, but by the late 14th century, English had changed the spelling of this word to make it more like the original Latin word, by changing the v to p. As we will see, Eng. april replaced the Old English name for this month, Eastermonað, which, interestingly, but not surprisingly, was also named after a fertility goddess. As usual, the substitution was not sudden and for a while in Middle English both names were used indistinctly.

Sp. abril is obviously a patrimonial descendant from Lat. aprīlem, the accusative wordform of aprīlis. A Latin p in that position always became b in Old Spanish and first the final m and then much later the final e (before consonants like l) were dropped.

In most other European languages the name for this month also stems from the Latin word, e.g. Catalan abril, Portuguese abril or abriu, Italian aprile, Dutch april, German April, Swedish april, Russian апре́ль (aprélʹ), Arabic أبريل (ʾabrīl), and Basque apiril.

Month 3: māius (mēnsis) ‘Maia’s (month)’

The month of May was called māĭus (mensis) in Latin, almost certainly after the Roman goddess Māĭa, goddess of fertility. The Latin adjective māĭus ‘of May’, pronounced /ˈmaːj.jʊs/, was the masculine nominative form (it had to be masculine to go with the noun mēnsis, which was masculine), and its feminine form was māĭa, a homophone of the name of the goddess. On the other hand, this Lat. māĭus had homophones of its own, since māĭus is also the neuter form of the comparative adjective māior ‘greater, larger’, comparative form of the Latin adjective magnus ‘great’ and source of Sp. mayor and Eng. major and mayor (cf. Part II, Chapter 19). There is another Latin word ĭus, which was an short for (an elliptical form of) ĭusdeus ‘great god’, another name or appellation (way to refer to) for the god Jupiter.

The goddess Maia was daughter of Atlas, wife of Vulcan, and mother of Mercury. The name of this goddess is thought to come from the Proto-Indo-European root *meǵh₂‑ ‘great’ and so it could have meant originally something like ‘great one’. This is also the root from where the Latin adjectives for ‘great’ and ‘greater’ that we just saw come from. Therefore, the name Maia would share its root with those adjectives and their descendants, as well as with all words derived from the same root in Latin and Greek, such as the following ones:
  • PIE *méǵh₂-s ‘great, etc.’ > A.Gk. μέγᾰς (mégas) ‘big, large, great’; e.g. Eng./Sp. mega‑, as in Eng./Sp. megabyte, Eng. megaton ~ Sp. megatón, Sp. megafonía ‘sound amplification’
  • PIE *méǵh₂-is‑ > Lat. magis (adverbial form of magnus) ‘more, more greatly, etc.’, source of más ‘more’ and also found in words like Eng. master ~ Sp. maestro (< Lat.  măgister ‘chief, head, director, leader’), Eng. mastery ~ Sp. maestría, Eng. mister
  • PIE *maǵ-yes- greater’ > Lat. māi‑ (māius, māia, māior, etc.), e.g. Sp. mayor and Eng. major and mayor
  • PIE *m̥ǵh₂-nós > Lat. magnus ‘great’, e.g. Sp. magnífico/a, Eng. magnificent, Sp. magnate ~ Eng. magnate
  • PIE *méǵh₂-lo-s > A.Gk. μεγᾰ́λος (megálos), cf. Eng. megalomaniac ~ Sp. megalómano, Eng. megalopolis ~ Sp. megalópolis

From Lat. māĭus, the name of the month, we get Eng. May /ˈmeɪ̯/ and Sp. mayo /ˈma.ʝo/. Eng. May can be seen as an early 12th-century loanword from Old French mai (which is still spelled mai in Modern French, now pronounced [ˈmɛ]) but because Lat. maius was also common in writings in Latin in the Old English period,  Eng. May replaced the Old English (Anglo-Saxon) name Þrīmeolce and Þrīmilcemōnað (see below).

As usual, the names for this month in English and Spanish have cognates in most other European languages, e.g. Portuguese maio, Italian maggio, Dutch mei, German Mai ), Swedish and Danish maj, Russian май (maj), Arabic مايو (māyū), and Basque maiatz (also known as loreil ‘month of flowers’). 

Month 4: iūnĭus (mēnsis) ‘Iuno’s (month)’

Figure 112: Statue of Juno, Vatican, Rome, Italy.[i]

Just like the month of May was named after a goddess, so was the month of June, the fourth month of the original Roman calendar. It was named after the goddess Iūnō (genitive: Iūnōnis; regular stem: Iūnōn‑). The name of the goddess is spelled Juno in both English and Spanish and it is pronounced /ˈʤu.noʊ̯/ in English and /ˈ in Spanish. She was the Roman goddess of love and marriage and queen of the gods. She was daughter of Saturn, mother of Mars and Vulcan, and sister of Jupiter, as well as his wife in some interpretations of Roman mythology. She was the patron goddess of the city of Rome as well as of the Roman Empire. This goddess was the equivalent to the Greek goddess Hera.

Some think that the name goes back to the same Proto-Indo-European root as Lat. iuvenis ‘youth’ (same in the nominative and genitive; accusative: iuvenem), the source of Sp. joven ‘young; youth’, and also the same root as iūnior ‘younger’, the source of Eng. junior (genitive: iūniōris, regular stem: iūniōr‑). The original meaning of this root supposedly was something like ‘vital force’ or ‘vital energy’.

The name of the month was iūnĭus mēnsis or mēnsis iūnĭus, which by ellipsis was reduced to iūnĭus. Actually, Lat. iūnĭus is thought to be a contraction of iūnĭonĭus (see above) and it can be analyzed as consisting of the stem Iūn‑ of the goddess’s name and the ending ĭus, of which the ĭ‑ part was a derivational suffix that created first/second declension adjectives and the ‑us part the nominative inflection: Iūn‑ĭ‑us; regular stem: Iūn‑ĭ‑. From Lat. iūnĭus, pronounced [ˈjuː.nɪ.ʊs] in Classical Latin, we get Eng. June /ˈʤun/ and Sp. junio /ˈ̯o/.

The word June is attested in English as early as 1100, in the Anglo-Saxon chronicle for that year. In some contexts of early use we can see it as a borrowing from Latin, but in others as an Old French loanword, as this name for the month slowly came to replace the Anglo-Saxon name for the month, Ǣrra Līða (see §22.7 below). The spelling of the word varied a great deal both in Old French and in Anglo-Norman, the Old French dialect spoken by the invading Normans in England, such as join, junye, junie, jun, juin, etc., until finally settling on June.

Other European languages have borrowed the name of this month from Latin as well, resulting in cognates of the English and Spanish names, e.g. Catalan juny, Portuguese junho, Italian giugno, Dutch and Swedish juni, German Juni, Russian июнь (ijúnʹ), and Arabic يونيو (yūniyō). (The Basque name for this month is not a loanword this time. This most common name for the month in Basque is ekain, which seems to be derived from eki ‘sun’ and gain ‘top’, for June is when the sun is at its highest.)


[i] Source: By William Henry Goodyear - Brooklyn Museum, Public Domain,

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