night - gender

Whodunit

Senior Member
Deutschland ~ Deutsch/Sächsisch
Hello, :)

The word "night" might be highly interesting to grammarians and linguists of most languages. We had this thread about the day in darkness, which, though, couldn't answer my question I've been asking myself for long:

Why is the night feminine in so many gender-based languages?

I'm aware of the fact that people in former times didn't mean by night what we understand by it today; it used to be the time between sundown and sundown, and not only between sundown and sunset (as it is today). The evidence of this theory is the word "fortnight," for example, where people used to count the nights (fourteen).

Anyway, is there some etymological reason why so many (I don't dare to say 'all') languages have a feminine word for it? :)

To start, in German it is "die Nacht" ('die' is the determined feminine article).
 
  • Outsider

    Senior Member
    Portuguese (Portugal)
    I'm aware of the fact that people in former times didn't mean by night what we understand by it today; it used to be the time between sundown and sundown, and not only between sundown and sunset (as it is today). The evidence of this theory is the word "fortnight," for example, where people used to count the nights (fourteen).
    Isn't counting nights the same as counting 24-hour days, in the contexts where the expression "fortnight" is normally used?
     

    übermönch

    Senior Member
    World - 1.German, 2.Russian, 3.English
    It is not different in Ukrainian, Russian, Polish and presumably in other Slavic languages. In Yiddish the gender of the word also corresponds to High German. However, in Hebrew, most curiously, the night is called Layla - sounds like a female name, doesn't it?- well, it is masculine anyway.
     

    Whodunit

    Senior Member
    Deutschland ~ Deutsch/Sächsisch
    Isn't counting nights the same as counting 24-hour days, in the contexts where the expression "fortnight" is normally used?
    It is, but the term "fortnight" alone shows that people in the past used to count the nights rather than the days as we would do today. In German, there's "die Weihnacht" (Christmas; literally: holy night (wîh is the Old German word for 'heilig' = holy)). However, Weihnachten is not and has never been celebrated by night, but it shows that people in former times already called the eve "Nacht" (night), although it might not even have been dark outdoor. ;)

    Another evidence: In Germania, Chapter 11, Tacitus wrote this sentence: "Nec dierum numerum, ut nos, sed noctium computant." This means that whenever people had to calculate a period of time, they used nights as a unit of measurement.
     

    Outsider

    Senior Member
    Portuguese (Portugal)
    However, Weihnachten is not and has never been celebrated by night, but it shows that people in former times already called the eve "Nacht" (night), although it might not even have been dark outdoor. ;)
    I don't know... In Portuguese, we say noite de Natal "Christmas night". :)

    Well, but we also say dia de Natal "Christmas day"... and Natal is neither "day" nor "night"...

    Anyway, I still don't follow your reasoning. Suppose I count three full days:

    sunrise 1 + sunset 1
    sunrise 2 + sunset 2
    sunrise 3 + sunset 3

    To do this, I don't need to count sunrises and sunsets; that's redundant. I can just count sunsets. :)
     

    Whodunit

    Senior Member
    Deutschland ~ Deutsch/Sächsisch
    To do this, I don't need to count sunrises and sunsets; that's redundant. I can just count sunsets. :)
    I've never said that I counted like this. :)

    You can count the sunsets, sunrises, dawns, dusks, days, and nights, whatever you want. However, in the past, people tended to use the night as a measurement. It is the contrary today: We usually count in days/weeks/months/years: we'll meet again in three; call me again the next week; ...

    By the way, this has not much to do with the gender, does it? ;)
     

    fizzy_soda

    Senior Member
    English - USA
    Maybe it has something to do with the association of females with the moon? The phases of the moon, as I understand, can be associated with female menstruation.

    I have always liked to think that culture played a big part of the formation of languages, and I am sure our ancestors (ours as in culmulatively; many cultures from different parts of the world were once linked in some form or fashion) had a common belief of femininity and its connection to the night, hence a noite, la noche, etc.
     

    jonquiliser

    Senior Member
    Svediż tal-Finlandja
    Swedish:

    Natt is masculine
    Well actually, in modern Swedish, natt is sort of "neither", as there is only common gender these days (i.e., utrum, and then of course there's neutrals). But in older Swedish, and still in some dialects, there's a distinction between feminine and masculine nouns. Natt was feminine (I had to check for this, most people today wouldn't know what gender the words have been of, unless they speak some specific dialect)
     

    callmechia

    Member
    United States, English
    I agree with Fizzy Soda --
    The moon has a 28-day cycle which corresponds to the female 28-day cycle of menstruation.
    For this reason, probably, the night is commonly deemed feminine because it is associated with the moon (which is also feminine: la luna (Italian), la lune (French)).
     

    jonquiliser

    Senior Member
    Svediż tal-Finlandja
    But the 28-day cycle is just a mean value! (Ie, when checking the different cycles of women, the average is 28 days) - but there's nothing saying that this is the most normal or even the most common! Frankly, I think this has nothing to do with the gender of the word "night".

    This is sth I found on a website:

    Linguistics Corner

    The question of gender in different languages is a complicated one: the gender scheme masculine-feminine, masculine-feminine-neuter, masculine-feminine-double gender, etc. very often cannot be designated by sex distinctions only; very often the study of gender distinctions and its choice goes back to historical and mythological annals, as it was previously proved by one of my researches in Lviv, Ukraine, at the 2nd TESOL Conference in 1991. E.g., the word 'night' in Ukrainian, Italian and German is of feminine gender due to the fact that in the early Indo-European mythologies the Night was imagined as a beautiful lady dressed in black with the symbols of stars and the Moon as the nost distinctive characteristics of the image. Thus, 'night' predominantly is proved to be of feminine gender (see Indian, Slavonic and Germanic mythologies).

    Ivan Petryshyn, Chicago, USA 01/28/07 9:20
    Most of the languages mentioned is this thread are indo-european, so I don't find it strange if they all have a feminine-gendered night; it might well be explained by something like the above quote. :)
     

    Outsider

    Senior Member
    Portuguese (Portugal)
    I agree with Fizzy Soda --
    The moon has a 28-day cycle which corresponds to the female 28-day cycle of menstruation.
    For this reason, probably, the night is commonly deemed feminine because it is associated with the moon (which is also feminine: la luna (Italian), la lune (French)).
    The word for "Moon" is masculine in some languages, though. For instance, German.
     

    fizzy_soda

    Senior Member
    English - USA
    But the 28-day cycle is just a mean value! (Ie, when checking the different cycles of women, the average is 28 days) - but there's nothing saying that this is the most normal or even the most common! Frankly, I think this has nothing to do with the gender of the word "night".
    Wait, I don´t see how you said anything different from what I said! :D It was just more cleaner. Due to cultural references, it influenced the way they view and expressed the night.

    What created these mythologies? It has to be some more innate feeling we have had since humankind came to be. (For example, most babies have depth-perception... and we all know to stay away from fire instinctively!) The quote you gave just made me support more the feminine-gender night based on what I said, hehe. What made the Italians associate the night with a beautiful damsel if it wasn´t for the belief they had already that it had something to do with femininity? What comes with being female? Menstruation! :D

    Let´s not get into specifics about numbers because Persephone being in the Underworld for 6 months out of year doesn´t really explain the seasons for our hemisphere, let alone for those places that only have 2 seasons. It was more like a "guesstimation"? ;)
     

    Whodunit

    Senior Member
    Deutschland ~ Deutsch/Sächsisch
    For this reason, probably, the night is commonly deemed feminine because it is associated with the moon (which is also feminine: la luna (Italian), la lune (French)).
    The word for "moon" is maculine in German, Arabic, Czech, and many other Slavic languages, I think. I wouldn't venture to say that the gender of the moon have something to do with women's menstruation.

    I've heard that the name Layla (popular in Muslim countries) means 'night'.
    In Arabic, it is ليلة (layla) and is feminine. However, there's also the word ليل (layl), which is masculine. I don't know the difference between the two, but I guess the former is more common.

    By the way, the Ancient Greek word for "night" is ἡ νύξ (hé nýks) and the Latin one is "nox." They are both feminine.
     

    elroy

    Imperfect Mod
    US English/Palestinian Arabic bilingual
    In Arabic, night as a concept is masculine - الليل - but an individual night is feminine - الليلة.

    أحب أن أعمل في الليل (ليلاً). - I like to work at night. (masculine)
    رأيت صديقي ليلة الخميس. - I saw my friend Thursday night. (feminine)
     

    Dymn

    Senior Member
    "Night" is feminine in "most languages" because they are all cognates descending from a common PIE root. Noche, nuit, Nacht, noč, nýchta... it's the same word all over and over. So perhaps it's just as arbitrary as any other gender of a word, and there's no need for esoteric explanations.
     

    apmoy70

    Senior Member
    Greek
    By the way, the Ancient Greek word for "night" is ἡ νύξ (hé nýks) and the Latin one is "nox." They are both feminine.
    In MoGr "night" is feminine also:
    Νύκτα» [ˈnikta] or «νύχτα» [ˈnixta] < Classical Greek «νύξ» núk͡s (3rd declension fem. nom. sing.), «νυκτός» nŭktós (fem. gen. sing.).
    In MoGr all nouns belonging to the ancient 3rd declension with complicated stems and inflection, have been simplified, and form their nominative by borrowing the stem of the ancient oblique cases.
    "Night" is feminine in "most languages" because they are all cognates descending from a common PIE root. Noche, nuit, Nacht, noč, nýchta... it's the same word all over and over. So perhaps it's just as arbitrary as any other gender of a word, and there's no need for esoteric explanations.
    Or perhaps our Indo-European ancestors lived in an environment of intense morning heat, and milder, cooler nights, which explains why "sun" is a masculine old inherited noun in most modern IE languages, and "night" is feminine.
    But that's another story beyond the scope of this thread (apologies for the OT).
     

    fdb

    Senior Member
    French (France)
    It's feminine in Kurdish, too - Şev.
    Avestan xšap-, Sanskrit kṣap- are feminine too. Avestan xšapan- is usually feminine, but in juxtaposition with azan- (n.) “day” it is neuter. Similarly, Old Persian xšapah- is attested only in juxtaposition with raučah- “day”, and is, like the latter, neuter. These Indo-Iranian words are, of course, not cognate with nox, nyx, night etc.
     

    ger4

    Senior Member
    German
    Swedish:

    Natt is masculine

    Danish:

    Nat is masculinum
    Well actually, in modern Swedish, natt is sort of "neither", as there is only common gender these days (i.e., utrum, and then of course there's neutrals). But in older Swedish, and still in some dialects, there's a distinction between feminine and masculine nouns. Natt was feminine (I had to check for this, most people today wouldn't know what gender the words have been of, unless they speak some specific dialect)
    In modern Standard Danish, nat is common gender, as in Swedish. Apparently, it used to be feminine, at least in the standard language:
    I gammeldags sprog kunne man henvise til hankønsord med ordet han og til et hunkønsord med ordet hun, hvor man nu ville sige den. Det hed dagi…han, men natten… hun (f.eks. natten hun er nu omme).
    [Source: www.dialekt.ku.dk]
    It would be interesting to know if there are dialects where it is masculine. Gender distinction seems to vary from dialect to dialect in Danish.
     

    spindlemoss

    Senior Member
    Welsh
    Welsh and Cornish nos and Breton noz are all feminine, as are Irish oíche, Scottish Gaelic oidhche and Manx oie.
     

    nimak

    Senior Member
    Macedonian
    In Standard Macedonian "night" is feminine, and "day" is masculine.

    ноќ (noḱ) [nɔc] n.f. "night"
    ден (den) [dɛn] n.m. "day"

    But in some Macedonian dialects they have the opposite gender, so they use ноќот n.m. instead ноќта "the night", or дента n.f. instead денот "the day". Those dialects usually use the same gender for both words, either both are masculine or feminine.
     
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    Sardokan1.0

    Senior Member
    Sardu / Italianu
    In Sardinian the meaning changes if I use the feminine or the masculine article.

    Sardinian vs Italian

    su notte (masculine) - la notte (feminine)
    sa notte (feminine) - la nottata (feminine)

    The same thing applies for the "day"

    su die (masculine) - il giorno (masculine)
    sa die (feminine) - la giornata (feminine)
     

    Welsh_Sion

    Member
    Welsh - Northern
    Interesting points, all. And returning to the previous comments regarding 'fortnight' (i.e. 'fourteen nights') in English, it's actually 'fifteen nights' ('pythefnos' < 'pymtheg' [< 'pump' + 'deg' = 5 + 10] + 'nos') in Welsh, whereas French has 'quinzejours' (i.e. 'fifteen days'), for presumably the same period of 'two weeks'. (I have also heard reference to Chinese which calls this period the equivalent of 'half a moon'. Can anyone confirm this?)

    Going back to Welsh, as proof that the Celts counted in 'nights', the word for 'a week' is 'wythnos' (i.e. 'eight' + 'nights') and not 'seven days'!

    (I've tried to keep the explanation simple, as generally with lower numbers, we prefer using singular nouns in Welsh, so in reality we have 'fifteen night' for 'fortnight' and 'eight night' for 'week'. For higher numbers, it's, e.g. 'fifty two of weeks'. So, either 'twelve month' or 'twelve of months' - NEVER twelve months! :)
     
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