After a busy week here’s a new beginning on Monday morning. And Hungarians actually mean it – the word for Monday literally means “week’s head”, i.e. “week’s beginning”.
To start with, the Hungarian word for “week” is hét. Incidentally the same word is used for “seven”. A similar analogy was used in Latin (septimana vs septem). Although it’s not recognizeable, hét is actually an Indo-European loan word in Hungarian. Ancestors of early Magyars adopted the word from an Old Iranian language (septa > seta > heta > hét). Linguistic evidence suggests that the dual meaning of the word (period / number) developed early, before the arrival of Magyars in Central Europe.
The Hungarian word for Monday is hétfő. As I mentioned before, this means “week’s head” or “week’s beginning”. Early Hungarians probably adopted this logic from a Slavic language. In early Croatian, “prvi dan” (“first day”) was used for Monday, which, in turn, must have originated from late Latin “primus dies”.
Tuesday is kedd, which is archaic form for expressing “second”. The development must have been kettő (“two”) > ketted (archaic “second”, later “half”) > kedd (shortened form). Try to imagine an English word of “twoth”, and you get it.
Hungarian equivalents of Wednesday, Thursday and Friday are Slavic loan words. Wednesday is szerda, which comes from a Slavic form of sreda that means “middle”. All modern Slavic languages still use very similar words for Wednesday. A similar logic is followed in German: Mittwoch is literally “middle of the week”. Early Hungarians adopted hundreds of words from various early Slavic languages, but often found it hard to pronounce several consonants at the beginning of words . That’s the reason for swapping “r” and “e” in this particular case.
Thursday is csütörtök, which may seem alarmingly difficult to pronounce at first. “Cs” is pronounced as “ch” in English, while “ü” and “ö” have the same phonetic values as in German and Turkish. The word derives from the Slavic word for “fourth”. The Slovak word for Thursday is štvrtok, the Croatian word is četvrtak (now, think again if Hungarian is difficult to pronounce).
Friday is péntek, which again comes Slavic (Croatian petak, Slovak piatok), with the original meaning of “fifth”. The n in péntek suggests an early adoption from Slavic, when many Slavic dialects still had nasal vowels. In modern Slavic languages only Polish retained nasal vowels: for example their word for Friday (piątek) is pronounced as “piontek”.
The word for Saturday is szombat, another example of early Slavic adoption with a nasal vowel. This word entered Hungarian from a Southern Slavic language (perhaps Old Church Slavonic sobot). The word can be traced back further to Byzantian Greek, and ultimately to Hebrew shabbat.
And this brings us to the end of the week. Sunday is vasárnap, which literally means “market day”. The modern Turkish word pazar günü means exactly the same. (What’s more, Turkish “pazar” and Hungarian “vásár” both derive from the same Persian word that also gave the world the word “bazaar”).
As a pronunciation guide for the days of the week in Hungarian, listen to this song from the early 1980’s. The actress sings about how she’s having the time of her life on Tuesdays, while all the other days are boring or gloomy.
(I used Gábor Zaicz’s Etimológiai szótár (Dictionary of Etymology, 2006) to write this article)