Origins of Names of Days of the Week

In my last installment, I discussed the names of months in Latin, Germanic, and Slavic languages. Now I'll give a brief, rather general discussion of the names of days of the week in these language groups.

Like the names of its months, the days of the week in English also have illustrious origins, but Latin influences have largely failed to gain the same momentum outside of Latin-based languages. While the Roman gods Mars and Mercury are present in the French days of the week mardi and mercredi, their English (as well as German and Dutch) equivalents Tuesday and Wednesday reflect the old Germanic gods Tiw and Woden. A concession is made in English and Dutch to the Roman god Saturn, however, who turns up in "Saturday."

A curious exception to all this in Western Europe is Portuguese, a Latin language that would reasonably be expected to reveal the names of Roman gods in the names of days of the week, has instead named most of them numerically, starting with "two." Monday through Friday are called 'segunda-feira' ("second fair") through "sexta-feira" ("sixth fair"), the use of "feira" ("fair") having mediaeval origins.

Similarly, the Slavic languages have also used a pragmatic, "counting" approach to naming most of the days of the week, with czwartek and piątek (from the roots for "four" and "five") referring to Thursday and Friday.

(posted by language fan and friend Silas McCracken)


Unknown said...

How fascinating. I'll have to ask my gf who speaks Galician what their days of the week are, it being a very close relative of Portuguese, but heavily influenced by Castilian.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for reading! That's an interesting question, and please feel free to let us know what you learn. I'd also like to find out that answer.-Silas

Unknown said...

She says that current usage are derivations of Latin( or perhaps Castilian): "luns, martes, mércores, xoves, venres, sábado e domingo". But once it was like the Portuguese system.

There's an interesting thread about it on word reference: http://forum.wordreference.com/showthread.php?t=57801

As always with regions in Spain there's at least two versions of history, including etymology:
pro-nationalist and anti-nationalist

Anonymous said...

Thanks to you and your gf for the reply, Neil! Now that is intriguing-'but once it was like the Portuguese system'. I took a look at the thread on wordreference.com (a site I frequently use in my work), and I recommend anyone interested in this subject to check it out, suggesting that the Spanish/Roman system may have been in use in Galicia for ages but may have also co-existed at times with the Portuguese system. The latter perhaps fell by the wayside due to a combination of religious and political influences but may still be understood in parts of Galicia. It shoes that words as 'mundane' as the names of the days of the week may indeed have a rich and complex history that might parallel the political, cultural, and social history of the people who use these words. Cheers-Silas