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Days of the Week in Mongolian and Buryat

23 May 2012

The very first article at cjvlang back in 2000 was Days of the Week in Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese. I don’t remember why I chose the topic, but I soon found myself drawn deeper and deeper into an ancient, confusing, and complex subject. In those pre-Wikipedia days it was a lot of fun finding information, online and off, and putting it together to create something that no one had done before, at least on the Internet. Twelve years later, Wikipedia has scooped just about everything into its capacious maw and it’s a challenge to find new angles to explore. Tempted though I was to extend Days of the Week to Mongolian, there was little to add to what was already found at places like the China History Forum, which, while containing many errors and misapprehensions, basically covered the territory. It would be a tough job coming up with content that no one else had done before.

That was until a recent exchange at Language Hat prompted me to look more closely at Buryat. When I did, I made the curious discovery that, unlike Mongolian proper, Buryat is one of that small group of languages that explicitly treats Sunday as the first day of the week. Of course, the Buryat names are listed at the exhaustive geonames.de list, but despite this, no one appears to have commented on this peculiarity. A bit more digging around revealed that the Inner Mongolians had their own version of the names of days of the week which are seldom found on the Internet (although this Japanese-language blog does carry them). It was clearly time to tackle a page on Days of the Week in Mongolian and Buryat.

The page that eventually took shape mostly repackages the usual information about Tibetan and Indian planetary names that is available elsewhere. But the Inner Mongolian and Buryat names ensured it had a unique angle that no one had covered before – the similarities and differences among three sets of numbered days (Inner Mongolian, Mongolian, and Buryat). Unfortunately, there is no fully satisfactory explanation for the three formats and their differences.

Leaving aside the Tibetan and Indian planetary names, the three sets of numbered names are as follows (transliteration for Mongolian is my own; that for Buryat is from Geonames):

Mongolian Inner M. Buryat
Sun бүтэн сайн өдөр
büteŋ saiŋ ödör
гарагийн өдөр
garagin ödör
гарагай нэгэн
garagaj negen
Mon нэгдэх өдөр
negdekh ödör
гарагийн нэгэн
garagin negen
гарагай хоёр
garagaj ȟojor
Tue хоёрдахь өдөр
khoyordakh’ ödör
гарагийн хоёр
garagin khoyor
гарагай гурбан
garagaj gurban
Wed гуравдахь өдөр
guravdakh’ ödör
гарагийн гурван
garagin gurvan
гарагай дүрбэн
garagaj dürbän
Thu дөрөвдэх өдөр
dörövdekh ödör
гарагийн дөрвөн
garagin dörvön
гарагай табан
garagaj taban
Fri тавдахь өдөр
tavdakh’ ödör
гарагийн таван
garagin tavan
гарагай зургаан
garagaj zurgaan
Sat хагас сайн өдөр
khagas saiŋ ödör
гарагийн зургаан
garagin zurgaan
гарагай долоон
garagaj doloon


For the weekdays, the names are formed according to the following pattern, using Monday as an example:

M: нэгдэх өдөр negdekh ödör ‘first day’
IM: гарагийн нэгэн garagin negen ‘one of the week’
Bt: гарагай хоёр garagaj ȟojor ‘two of the week’

The word гараг / гариг garag / garig has as its original meaning ‘planet’, but thanks to the Tibetan-based names for days of the week it has come to mean ‘day of the week’ and, going further, ‘week’. (This incidentally, fairly clearly indicates that the Tibetan names, which in Mongolia are still used in the written language, came first, and the numbered names were formed later.)

The genitive form гарагийн garagin (Inner Mongolian) or гарагай garagaj (Buryat) can be interpreted as ‘…of the week’, yielding the meanings ‘(day) one of the week’ and ‘(day) two of the week’ respectively. This runs parallel to the system of dates in Mongolian, where the first of October is аравдугаар сарын нэгэн aravdugaar sariŋ negen  ‘(day) one of number-ten month’. The word өдөр ödör ‘day’ can be understood as having been omitted.

All three systems number the days of the week, but as we noted above, the Mongolian names count from Monday as ‘day one’, while the Buryat names count from Sunday as ‘day one’.

Looking only at weekdays, the relationship of the three sets of names can be summed up in the following table:

Format \ Starting day Monday start Sunday start
Genitive of гараг/гариг + number Inner Mongolian Buryat
Ordinal Mongolian

Only Inner Mongolian shares features with both of the others. It shares the ‘genitive of гариг / гараг + a numeral’ format with Buryat, and the custom of counting from Monday with Mongolian. Mongolian and Buryat have in common only the fact of counting.

Saturday and Sunday

For Saturday and Sunday, each variety adopts a different approach.

* Buryat simply includes the two days within the overall sequence. They become ‘(day) seven of the week’ and ‘(day) one of the week’ respectively.

* Inner Mongolian uses ‘(day) six of the week’ for Saturday and the enigmatic гарагийн өдөр garagin ödör ‘day of the week’ for Sunday. The latter can be explained as a transparent calque on the Chinese term 星期天 xīngqītiān, literally ‘week day’ or ‘day of the week’. The original Chinese naming for the days of the week used a sequence starting from 礼拜天 / 禮拜天 lǐbàitiān ‘day of worship’, but since the use of 礼拜 / 禮拜 lǐbài to mean ‘week’ was felt to be unsuitable, it was replaced in official usage by the coinage 星期 xīngqī ‘week’. This resolved the issue of appropriateness but resulted in the meaningless name ‘day of the week’ for Sunday. The Inner Mongolian names directly reflect this modified Chinese naming.

* Mongolian of Mongolia calls Saturday the ‘day of half rest’ and Sunday the ‘day of rest’.

Common source for Mongolian?

While the Inner Mongolian names are quite clearly modelled on the Chinese names (Monday = 星期一 xīngqīyī ‘week one’, Tuesday = 星期二 xīngqī’èr  ‘week two’, etc.), the relationship with the other two is less easy to explain.

The use of a different format in Mongolia is not insurmountable. Indeed, a possible missing link is found in one rather idiosyncratic Chinese-Mongolian dictionary, which is mostly notable for not giving the most idiomatic or widely used Mongolian terminology. This dictionary gives Monday as гарагийн нэгдэх өдөр garagin negdekh ödör =  ‘first day of the week’, with the rest of the weekdays following suit. This hybrid form combines the Inner Mongolian and Mongolian styles, i.e., the genitive of гараг / гариг garag / garig plus an ordinal sequence starting on Monday. This hybrid form could be either 1) the original source of the Inner Mongolian and Mongolian names, or 2) a deliberate attempt to bridge the gap. The fact that the two territories that use the genitive of гараг / гариг garag / garig (Inner Mongolia and Buryatia) are separated by Mongolia in between suggests that this was indeed the older form and that Mongolia has diverged from this. Although I have no hard historical data to back it up, it thus seems likely that the Inner Mongolian and Mongolian numbered names share this hybrid form as a common source, probably dating back to the late Qing. Needless to say, it is also possible that there is another, quite different explanation.

The difference with Buryat is more problematic. Although the Buryat area was under Russian control at the time the days of the week became established in China (late 19th century), the use of the genitive of гараг / гариг garag / garig could easily have diffused into Buryat-speaking areas from Mongolian-speaking areas to the south. What is truly puzzling, however,  is the divergence of the starting day for counting the days of the week. This is different from both Russian and Chinese practice. Old Turkic counted the days from Sunday, too, and the western Buryat dialects were heavily influenced by Turkic. But given that Old Turkic broke up by the 13th century, it would be a long shot indeed to propose an Old Turkic origin for the Buryat usage. At this stage I have no explanation for this phenomenon.

Names in East Asia

The Mongolian page adds a further twist to the names used in East Asian languages. The origins of these names can be summarised as follows:

* The Japanese revived names that they borrowed from Chinese a millennium ago. These came to China via Buddhism and ultimately derive from the ancient Middle East.

* The Chinese common people came up with their own names based on contact with Western missionaries. This naming was not to the taste of the literate class, resulting in the emergence of two later sets of names that were felt to be more ‘elegant’.

* The Vietnamese names were introduced by Portuguese missionaries and were based on the preferred names of the Catholic Church.

* The Mongolian planetary names were introduced from Tibet, which gained them from Indian Buddhism and ultimately the Middle East, but the modern numbered systems probably arose later under Chinese influence. The divergent numbering system of the Buryat names is a mystery.


The possible Chinese origin of the Mongolian names is not something that many Mongolians would welcome, and is thus a candidate for one of the overlooked ‘angles’ turned up in the course of doing the project. While I can’t lay claim to having discovered them, these angles certainly made it worthwhile putting the information together in the way that I did. They include:

  1. The common custom in Western European languages of naming the days after gods causes many people to lose sight of an important fact: the days are supposed to be named after planets, not gods. The Germanic names (including English) are anomalous in not referring to the planets. The Japanese and Mongolian planetary names are closer to the original concept than the English names are.
  2. The 礼拜 / 禮拜 lǐbài names in Chinese were the earliest forms in modern usage, with the 星期 xīngqī and /  zhōu names coming later. This was brilliantly born out by a Chinese-language paper I discovered after I did the page, which gave dates and historical data.
  3. Supposedly reputable Chinese references, such as Cihai (辞海), show a strong bias against 礼拜 / 禮拜 lǐbài, and imply that the planetary names originated in China and that the name 星期 xīngqī is descended from ancient Chinese precedents. It is unfashionable to trot out cultural stereotypes such as ‘the Chinese like to claim that almost everything originated in China’, but in this case it may fairly be said that Cihai has literally been caught in the act.
  4. The Vietnamese names were from Portuguese and reflected the preferred usage of the Catholic church, but the name chúa nhật ‘Lord’s Day’ was deliberately changed to chủ nhật ‘Main Day’ by the Buddhists. This was achieved quite effortlessly by simply giving the chu nom character  chúa ‘master, lord’ its alternative reading of chủ ‘main, chief, principal, lord’.
  5. Some unknown person in the Japanese Meiji government hit on the idea of using the old planetary names for the days of the week. These old names had been borrowed from Chinese and kept alive for many generations. This was an inspired choice that may seem natural in retrospect but was by no means a foregone conclusion.
  6. One of the Japanese sources I used bent over backwards to deny that the Japanese names were actually borrowed from Chinese.

I find debunking the cultural prejudices that tend to obscure or subtly de-emphasise the facts the most interesting angle of all.

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