Friday, April 11, 2008

Etymology of the days of the week

A linguist's brain is always dissecting language. I find that I learn language better when I know the root meaning of a word. It is often a fun game to then learn all of the other words connected to a root meaning, or a word tree, so to speak. I have a bit of a personal theory that words carry on the psyche of a culture and previous generations as we pass them on to the next. It's a hard theory to prove and I have other things to work towards that are more important such as saving endangered languages.
I did get to thinking about the days of the week. It is pretty easy for an English speaker to see that Sunday is named after the sun and Monday is named after the moon. Thursday is named after Thor (Norse god) and Saturday after Saturn. But what are the other days named after?
I did a bit of a search and discovered that all of the days of the week are named after Germanic, Norse or Roman gods.

Sunday: named after the Germanic sun goddess "Sunne."
Monday: named after the Germanic moon god "Mani" (old English "Mona").
Tuesday: named after the Norse god Tyr (or Mars) became Twis in old English.
Wednesday: named after the Germanic god Woden or Norse god Odin, who is Mercury.
Thursday: named after the Germanic god, or Norse god Thor, who is Jupiter.
Friday: from the old English Frige meaning Venus.
Saturday: from the old English Saetern or Saturn.

While it is true that all of the days of the week are named for bodies in the heavens, they were also named for pagan gods. The concept of a heavenly body and a god were one and the same to the ancient peoples who gave the names. This pattern of naming the days is the most common through out all languages of the world. The pattern is broken in cultures that experienced a spiritual awakening in ancient times.

Russian is a language that does not name the days of the week for pagan gods. Russian names the days of the week largely based upon the numbering system.

(Sunday) Воскресенье, (Voskreseniye) -Meaning resurrection, referring to the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
(Monday) Понедельник, (Ponedelnik)- All other Slavic languages call Sunday "Nedelya", literally no business or no work. Sunday is the day of no work. Ponedelnik is the day after no work. Interestingly, Russian is the only Slavic language to use the word resurrection to refer to Sunday. Russian uses the Slavic word for Sunday, "nedelya" to refer to "week."
(Tuesday) Вторник, (Vtornik)- literally, the second (day).
(Wednesday) Среда, (Sreda)- literally, the middle. This however is inconsistent with Tuesday being numbered second.
(Thursday) Четверг, (Chetverg)- literally, the fourth (day).
(Friday) Пятница, (Pyatnitsa)- literally, the fifth (day).
(Saturday) Суббота (Subbota)- literally, the Sabbath,

The Russian language really came into birth after 800 AD and was still a very young language by the time of official Christianisation in 988 AD. So any usage of Old Slavic pagan names for days of the week would have been quite obvious to early Russian Christians. I have tried to research on the internet Old Slavic names for days of the week and have been unsuccessful at turning anything up. Early Russian Christians would have had a strong desire to change the naming system fo days of the week.

There are two basic systems for naming days of the week- numbering or pagan gods. There are some religious variations, work based variations and legal based variations in various languages. There is no system that uses a "world" religious name for every day of the week. The Irish language uses Lord's Day for Sunday, First fast for Wednesday, Day between fasts for Thursday and Fast for Friday. It maintains the planets/ pagan gods for the remaining days.

Many Muslim countries have changed their languages throughout history to a numbering system (this is a supposition of mine, I would have to check up each respective proto language to confirm this), while often referring to Friday as a meeting or gathering day.

My question is, how important is is that English days (and many other languages) are named after pagan gods? It could be argued that it is not important, because language changes and people do not think of pagan gods when naming days of the week. But is this really true? On a latent level many of us know that the days are named for pagan gods. Of course, western societies by and large are not majority Christian any more, so there would be no desire to change the system for a majority of people.

The Quakers were a deep thinking people and decided to drop the pagan system and change to a numbered system- Lord's Day, second day, third day etc. The Hebrew days of the week were first day, second day, so on and Sabbath for the seventh day. One day, when there is a great spiritual awakening in the nations of the west again (which I theologically believe there will be), I wonder if the names of the days of the week will be changed accordingly.


  1. Anonymous9:26 am

    What an interesting commentary! I'd like to include the fact that Mandarin Chinese also uses the numbering system for its days. Xing shi yi (day one) is Monday, xing shi er, Tuesday, xing shi san, Wednesday. Sunday is different, xing shi tian, heavenly day. This is interesting in that it is one of the oldest languages in the world. As you say, many ancient groups used the constellations, stars and planets to define deities, naming the days of the week accordingly, but Mandarin seemingly did not follow this pattern.

  2. That's highly fascinating. Thanks for commenting. There are also many fascinating keys buried in the ancient Chinese writing system. Not to mention the fact that once a year the emperor used to ascend a mountain to sacrifice to the "High King of Heaven."

  3. Anonymous1:52 pm

    I've been looking for a quick guide on this topic. Thanks.

  4. Anonymous3:54 pm

    9 day week...
    Понедельникъ - после Недели (день после недели),
    Вторникъ - второй день,
    Третейникъ - третий день,
    Четверикъ - четвертый день,
    Пятница - пятый день,
    Шестица - шестой день,
    Седьмица - седьмой день,
    Осьмица - восьмой день (в польском языке 8 - осемь, а у нас восемь),
    Неделя - не делать (день, когда ничего не делают).

  5. The romanization of the Chinese terms are incorrect. It should be "xing qi."
    Some more clarification:
    The 7-day week system was not a popular way to tell time until contemporary times. Year was expressed in terms of the year of rule of any given emperor. Month and day was expressed in terms of the traditional lunar calendar. The year was further divided into 24 periods called 二十四節氣 (lit. twenty four sectional weather) that was based on an agricultural working calendar. When the 7-day week was introduced during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) through Buddhist texts from India, a much older concept of 七曜 (lit. seven shine) was applied, for the stars and planets matched perfectly with those of the 7-day week: 日 sun, 月 moon, 火 fire (Mars), 水 water (Mercury), 木 wood (Jupiter), 金 metal (Venus), 土 soil/earth (Saturn). This was passed on to Korea and Japan, who still retains this system until this day; eg. kr 월요일 jp 月曜日 lit. moon shine day.
    In Chinese, there are currently three terms in use: 1) 星期 xing1 qi1, lit. star/planet schedule; 2) 週 zhou1, lit. cycle; 3) 禮拜 li3 bai4, lit. ceremony bow. Clearly #3 comes from Christian influence, in which 禮拜天 (lit. ceremony bow day) refers to church day. The way these three terms are used is by adding the cardinal numbers 1 through 6 for Monday-Saturday, and by adding 日 ri4 or 天 tian1 (both meaning day, former being Classical Chinese, latter Modern Mandarin) for Sunday. Note that 週天 is the only impossible combination. Thus, 星期一 週一 禮拜一 all mean Monday. Native speakers do not distinguish between these three terms as they are perceived as equivalents.

  6. In Portuguese, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday are, respectively: Segunda-feira (Second fair), Terça-feira (Third fair), Quarta-feira (Fourth fair), Quinta-feira (Fifth fair) and Sexta-feira (Sixth fair).