Days of the Week in Mongolian and Buryat

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 still 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 list, but despite this, no one appears to have commented on this peculiarity. After that, a bit more casual digging around revealed that 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 the three sets of numbered days (Inner Mongolian, Mongolian, and Buryat). Unfortunately, it is hard to come up with a fully satisfactory explanation for the three formats and their differences.

The three sets of names are as follows:

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



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

Mongolian: negdekh ödör (нэгдэх өдөр; ‘first day’)
Inner Mongolian: garagiŋ negeŋ (гарагийн нэгэн; ‘one of the week’)
Buryat: garagaj ȟojor (гарагай хоёр; ‘two of the week’)

The word garag/garig (гараг/гариг) 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 came first and the numbered names were formed later.)

The genitive form garagiŋ (гарагийн – Inner Mongolian) or garagaj (гарагай – Buryat) can be interpreted as ‘…of the week’, yielding the meanings ‘(day) one of the week’ and ‘(day) two of the week’ respectively. This is completely parallel to the system of dates in Mongolian. For instance, the first of October is aravdugaar sariŋ negen аравдугаар сарын нэгэн ’(day) one of number-ten month’.

As I noted above, the Mongolian names count the days of the week from Monday as ‘day one’. By contrast, the Buryat names count the days of the week from Sunday as ‘day one’.

The relationship of the three sets of weekday names can be summed up in the following table:

Monday start Sunday start
Genitive of гараг/гариг + number Inner Mongolian Buryat
Ordinal Mongolian

Only one variety shares features with both of the others: Inner Mongolian, which 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 has its own peculiarity.

* Buryat simply includes the two days in the total counting 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 garagiŋ ödör (гарагийн өдөр; ‘day of the week’) for Sunday. The latter is a calque on the somewhat meaningless Chinese term xīngqītiān (星期天) or xīngqīrì (星期日), literally ‘week day’ or ‘day of the week’. The original Chinese term was the more meaningful lǐbàitiān (礼拜天 / 禮拜天) ‘day of worship’. The term xīngqītiān results from substituting a new word for ‘week’, xīngqī, in place of the original lǐbài (meaning ‘worship’ and ‘week’).

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

Common source for Mongolian?

For Inner Mongolian, these names are quite clearly modelled on the Chinese names for days of the week, which use a similar series based on xīngqī 星期 ‘week’ (Monday= xīngqīyī 星期一 ‘week one’, Tuesday= xīngqī’èr 星期二 ‘week two’, etc.). This goes right through to the day for Sunday, modelled on xīngqī’tiān 星期天.

But the relationship with the other two is hard to explain. The use of a different format in Mongolia is not insurmountable. Indeed,  there is a dictionary – a Chinese-Mongolian dictionary that is notable for not giving the most idiomatic or widely used forms — that lists a hybrid form. For example, Monday is given as garagiŋ negdekh ödör = гарагийн нэгдэх өдөр ‘first day of the week’. For the weekdays, at least, the hybrid form combines the Inner Mongolian, Mongolian, and Buryat styles, i.e., the genitive of гараг/гариг plus an ordinal. This hybrid form could be either 1) the source of the two different forms, which subsequently diverged in the two areas, or 2) a deliberate attempt to artificially bridge the gap. The fact that two territories which use the genitive of гариг / гараг are separated by Mongolia, which doesn’t, suggests that the two territories represent the older form and that it is Mongolia that has diverged. Although I have no hard historical data to back it up, it thus seems quite possible 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, however, it is quite 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 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 in Buryat. 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. To summarise:

* The Japanese revived names that they borrowed from Chinese a millennium ago.

* The Chinese common people came up with their own names based on contact with 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, but the numbered systems in popular use possibly 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 subsite. 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 lose sight of one important fact: the days are supposed to be named after planets, not gods. The Germanic names (including English) are actually 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 lǐbài (礼拜/禮拜) names in Chinese were the earliest forms in modern usage, with the xīngqī (星期) names and the zhōu (周/週) names coming later. This is obvious from comparing lǐbàitiān (礼拜天/禮拜天) ‘day of worship’ with xīngqītiān (星期天) ‘week day’, as I noted above. The rather meaningless xīngqītiān ‘week day’ is derived from the more meaningful lǐbàitiān ‘day of worship’. This hunch 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 distort the facts in order to support the ‘official line’. This is evident in the bias against lǐbài (because it smacks of an introduced religion), the strong implication that the planetary names really originated in China, and the implication that xīngqī is descended from these ancient precedents despite being a modern coinage. 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 主 chúa ‘master, lord’ its alternative reading of chủ ‘main, chief, principal, lord’.
  5. Some unknown person in the Japanese Meiji government (it would be nice to know who!) hit on the idea of using 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. In a modern-day manifestation of the 19th century urge to datsu-a nyū-ō (脱亜入欧=”get out of Asia, get into Europe”), one of the Japanese sources I used bent over backwards to deny that the Japanese names were actually borrowed from Chinese.

Perhaps I am perverse, but I find debunking the cultural prejudices that tend to obscure or subtly de-emphasise the facts – the assumption that English is closer to the naming tradition than languages of the Far East; the attempt by Chinese reference books to trace recently coined names back to ancient Chinese origins; Japanese attempts to show that their names essentially came from Europe, not China; the aversion of Vietnamese Buddhists to the Catholic naming system; and a general Mongolian blindness to possible Chinese influence in their culture – the most interesting angle of all.

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