Days of the Week

Days of the Week

The language we use both reflects and shapes the way we think about the world. If we want to identify blind spots and find new perspectives to consider, then comparing the way human beings express the same things in different languages is an invaluable resource. 

Let’s take the days of the week as an example.  We all appear to share the concept of a day and a month. Everyone can see that the sun rises, crosses the sky in an arc, then disappears for a while before rising again. Thus the Chinese for day is either 天 (sky, heavens, god) or 日 (sun).  Similarly, the Latin ‘dies,’ English ‘day,’ German ‘Tag,’ French ‘jour’ and Italian ‘giorno’ all seem to have come from a Proto Indo-European root word which meant both ‘sky, heavens, god’ and ‘sun.’  

Likewise, everyone can see that the moon waxes to a full disk and wanes back to nothing roughly every 28 daily cycles of the sun.  So the word for ‘month’ in most languages  is either the same as the word for moon, as in Chinese (月), or else derived from it (like ‘month’, ‘mois’, ‘Monat’).  But what is a week? 

Human societies have grouped days into sets shorter than a month in a variety of different ways, but it seems to have been the ancient Babylonians who, sometime between the 8th and 6th centuries BCE, decided to split the 28 days into 4 cycles of 7.   

The Babylonians’ grouping was adopted and promoted by subsequent civilisations including the Greeks and the Romans whose names for a week (‘εβδομάδα’ and ‘hebdomada’) were simply derived from their words for ‘seven.’  Hebrew, Arabic, French and Italian have followed suit. The German ‘Woche’ and English ‘week’ came from a word meaning ‘to turn’ and thus ‘a cycle,’ and the Chinese 周 takes the same approach. 

The next question is: how to distinguish each of the seven days in a week?   

The Greeks and Romans used the sun and moon, which already mark days in general, and the 5 other heavenly bodies that are observable with the naked eye which seem to process across the sky. Since the Chinese for planet is 行星 (moving star), an alternative name for a week is 星期 (star period). 

The Romans named the 5 planets after gods in their mythology: Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus and Saturn., and so we have: 

dies Solis, ‘day of the Sun’ 

dies Lunae, ‘day of the Moon’ 

dies Martis, ‘day of Mars’ (god of war) 

dies Mercurii, ‘day of Mercury’ (messenger of the gods) 

dies Iovis, ‘day of Jupiter/Jove’ (god of thunder and lightning) 

dies Veneris, ‘day of Venus’ (goddess of love and beauty) 

dies Saturni, ‘day of Saturn’ (god of agriculture) 
These were essentially adopted by … 

French/ Spanish/ Italian 

dimanche/ domingo/ domenica: The Lord’s (Dominus) day 

lundi/ lunes/ lunedì: Moon (lune) day 

mardi/ martes/ martedì; Mars’ day 

mercredi/ miércoles/ mercoledì: Mercury’s day 

jeudi/ jueves/ giovedì: Jupiter/Jove’s day 

vendredi/ viernes/ venerdì: Venus’ day 

samedi/ sábado/ sabato: The Sabbath (Jewish day of rest) 
In Japanese, the 5 planets are named after the ‘elements’ fire, water, wood, metal and earth so those were used for the corresponding days of the week.   
月曜日, Moon day 

火曜日, Fire (Mars) day 

水曜日, Water (Mercury) day  

木曜日, Wood (Jupiter) day  

金曜日, Metal (Venus) day  

土曜日, Earth (Saturn) day  

日曜日, Sun day  
In German and English, the gods’ names were swapped for their Norse or Teutonic equivalents. 


Monday, Moon day 

Tuesday, Tyr’s day (Norse god of war) 

Wednesday, Odin’s day (Norse god of wisdom) 

Thursday, Thor’s day (Norse god of thunder) 

Friday, Frigg’s day (Norse goddess of marriage) 

Saturday, Saturn’s day (Roman god of wealth) 

Sunday, Sun day 


Montag, Moon day 

Dienstag, “Thing” day (a gathering associated with Tyr) 

Mittwoch, Mid-week 

Donnerstag, Thunder day 

Freitag, Frigg’s day 

Samstag, The Sabbath (Jewish day of rest) 

Sonntag, Sun day 

From the examples above, we can see that a number of names were adopted from outside the general convention. German and Russian chose to call Wednesday ‘the Middle of the Week.’   

Interestingly, Scandinavians called Saturday ‘bath day,’ but the name for Saturday in French, Spanish, Italian and German was derived from the Hebrew ‘Shabbat.’ The Jewish people had once been slaves in Egypt and defined themselves as a nation by their miraculous liberation in the Exodus. The practice of regularly taking a “sabbath”(rest) day became an identity marker for them: a declaration that they belonged not to their rulers, employers or slave masters but to God who provided for them.  The Hebrews were slaves again in Babylon when the system of weeks was devised and determined that they would observe a sabbath on the last day of each week. 

The first Christians were Jewish and believed that Christ rose from the dead on the day after the sabbath, and so in Russian ‘Sunday’ is called ‘Resurrection.’  Since their Sunday gathering to worship the risen Christ was the focal point of the week for Catholic missionaries in China, 礼拜 (worship) is a third name for a week in Chinese.  Muslims on the other hand hold their weekly gatherings the day before the sabbath and hence the Arabic name for Friday is Gathering.  

Some languages, like Chinese, Arabic and Russian have (primarily) used numbers rather than names for the days of the week:  

周一 (Week 1) 

周二 (Week 2) 

周三 (Week 3) 

周四 (Week 4) 

周五 (Week 5) 

周六 (Week 6) 

周日 (Week Sun)  
الأثنين (Two) 

الثلاثاء (Three) 

الأربعاء (Four) 

الخميس (Five) 

الجمعه (Gathering) 

السبت (Rest) 

الأحد (One) 


Понедельник (First) 

Вторник (Second) 

Среда (Middle, from ‘heart’) 

Четверг (Fourth) 

Пятница (Fifth) 

Суббота (Sabbath) 

Воскресенье (Resurrection) 

One phenomenon common to all humanity, but a variety of perspectives which are embedded in different languages.