Origins of names of months

Although the names of the months in English may seem quite mundane, the origins of some of their names are nothing short of divine. A trawl through the names of our months will reveal such luminaries as the Roman gods Janus (January) and Mars (March), the Italic goddess Maia (May), and the Greek goddess Aphrodite (April) (not to mention appearances from mere mortal celebrities Julius and Augustus Caesar, represented in July and August, respectively). These names date back to the Roman calendar, which originally had ten months. As the Romans colonized many regions of the Mediterranean world, they spread their calendar and, of course, the Latin language, which helps to explain how the original Roman names found their way into modern Latin-based languages, such as French, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish.

Gradually, the Latin-based names replaced even the original Germanic months in such languages as German, Dutch, and English, thus replacing the original names. For instance, as late as the 18th century in German, May (now "Mai" in Modern German) was known as "Wonnemonat" (Grazing Month) and July ("now "Juli" in Modern German) was "Heumonat" (Hay Month").

Interestingly, this Latin invasion affected the names of months in some Slavic languages, but not others. The old Slavic names, such as like the old Germanic names, were related more to the time of year rather than deities (for instance, "listopad," which means October in Polish and Croatian, means "falling leaves") are still evident in the names of months in Polish, Croatian, Bielorussian, Czech, and Ukrainian, but Latin loan words are used in modern Russian, Serbian, Macedonian, Slovenian, and Bulgarian. Even in some of the languages that have adopted Latin month names, Old Slavic names persist in folk literature.

(posted by language fan and friend Silas McCracken)


alfaqui said...

Listopad is October in Croatian, but November in Polish. Weird thing.

Terry said...

I stand corrected! Thank you, Alfaqui. I've looked this up, and "listopad" literally suggests "falling leaves." This would imply that leaves fall later in Poland than in Croatia, although geographically, this would seem improbable. Interesting example of semantic shift. Thanks again for posting! Cheers, Silas