Days of the Week in Vietnamese: the Liturgical Calendar of the Catholic Church

On the surface, Vietnamese seems very similar to Chinese. Each day of the week is assigned a number.

  Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
V full form chủ nhật,
chúa nhật
ngày thứ hai
ngày thứ ba
ngày thứ tư ngày thứ năm ngày thứ sáu ngày thứ bảy
V short form chủ nhật,
chúa nhật
thứ hai
thứ ba
thứ tư thứ năm thứ sáu thứ bảy
Meaning Main day,
Lord day
(day) no. 2 (day) no. 3 (day) no. 4 (day) no. 5 (day) no. 6 (day) no. 7

The word thứ is an ordinal meaning 'number'. The full forms of the names of the days include the word ngày ('day'), but in everyday language the ngày is dropped.

Despite the similarity to the Chinese names, there are two important differences:

1. Sunday is identified as the 'Lord's Day' (chúa nhật) or 'master's day, main day' (chủ nhật), not as the 'day of worship' as in Chinese 禮拜天 / 礼拜天 lǐbàitiān.

2. Unlike Chinese, which takes Monday as day one, Vietnamese starts with No. 2 (Monday) and proceeds to No. 7 (Saturday),

In our search for the origins of the Vietnamese naming, our first clue is the two words for Sunday, (chúa nhật / chủ nhật). In the days when Vietnamese was still written in Chinese characters, both of these words were written 主日, meaning 'principal day', 'main day', or 'Lord's Day'. 主日, pronounced zhǔrì in Chinese and shujitsu in Japanese, has traditionally been used by Catholics in both China and Japan as a name for Sunday.

Even more interesting is a traditional Chinese Catholic naming that follows the same numbering pattern as Vietnamese, with the 'Lord's Day' followed by 'day two' etc.

Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
主日 瞻禮二 瞻禮三 瞻禮四 瞻禮五 瞻禮六 瞻禮七
zhǔrì zhānlǐ-èr zhānlǐ-sān zhānlǐ-sì zhānlǐ-wǔ zhānlǐ-liù zhānlǐ-qī
Lord day Observe-ritual two Observe-ritual three Observe-ritual four Observe-ritual five Observe-ritual six Observe-ritual seven

This curious usage is a faithful reflection of the liturgical week of the Roman Catholic Church, which takes Sunday as the 'Lord's Day' and uses the term feria for the numbered weekdays. Feria originally meant 'free days' in Latin, but later came to mean 'feast days'. Then, for some unknown reason, the term feria came to be applied to the days of the week, even though these are not actually 'feast days' at all (Note 11: The feria).

As it happens, there is one language in Europe that has an almost identical method of naming the days of the week: Portuguese. The Portuguese days of the week are called feira, with Monday as the second feira, Tuesday as the third, etc. The word feira can be omitted, thus segunda for Monday, terça for Tuesday, etc. The only point of difference from Vietnamese is that Portuguese uses sábado for Saturday:

Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
domingo segunda-feira terça-feira quarta-feira quinta-feira sexta-feira sábado
Lord 2nd feria 3rd feria 4th feria 5th feria 6th feria Sabbath

The Portuguese term feira and the Chinese term 瞻禮 zhānlǐ thus both faithfully preserve the feria of Catholic usage. Portuguese was the only European language to adopt the liturgical names instead of the planetary names or pagan god names adopted by other languages (see Days of the Week in the West).

There is a clear historical link supporting a Portuguese origin for the Vietnamese day names. It was Portuguese Jesuit missionaries in the early 17th century who played a prominent role in the development of the Vietnamese language. Portuguese missionaries edited the first bilingual dictionaries between Vietnamese and Western languages (Portuguese-Vietnamese, Vietnamese-Portuguese). Portuguese missionaries created the romanised script that later became the basis of the modern Vietnamese orthography, quoc ngu, starting the process by which the Chinese stranglehold on the Vietnamese language and culture was broken (Note 12: Portuguese missionaries and their influence on Vietnamese).

It thus appears that the names of the days of the week entered Vietnamese from Portuguese. Interestingly, the compiler of the first extant Vietnamese-Portuguese dictionary, Alexandre de Rhodes -- actually a French Jesuit building on the work of Portuguese Jesuits -- also wrote one of the earliest catechisms in Vietnamese. This catechism was based on a sequence of eight days, each day beginning with ngày thứ ('day number'), as in the modern names of the days of the week.

As we noted above, Vietnamese has two variants for 'Sunday', chủ nhật and chúa nhật -- or three if the alternative Southern pronunciation chúa nhựt is included. The original name for 'Sunday' was actually chúa nhật, 'Lord's Day', but this has largely been supplanted by chủ nhật in modern-day usage. The reason for this again lies in religion.

Under chu nom, the old system of Vietnamese writing that was based on Chinese characters, the character ('main, principal, master') had two readings: chúa and chủ. These were both originally from the same Chinese root (Mandarin zhǔ), but chúa is a more naturalised (and probably older) form while chủ is more recent and closer to the Chinese. There is a not-so-subtle difference between them:

Chúa has the meaning 'master, boss; lord, prince; God'.
Chủ has a range of meanings: 'owner, master, boss, lord, ruler, host; main, chief, principal'. These are similar to the Chinese meaning of zhǔ.

Since the day names were probably introduced by the Jesuits, the original choice of chúa nhật had a clear motivation: it refers explicitly to 'God', in particular the God of the Catholic Church. Chúa nhật is unmistakably the 'Lord's Day'.

For adherents of Eastern religions such as Buddhism, the reference to the God of the Christians was not such a welcome development. The solution? By reading the character as chủ ('principal') instead of chúa ('Lord'), it was possible to play down the religious overtones of the name. Chúa nhật thus became chủ nhật 'main day', which has become the more common Vietnamese term for 'Sunday'. (Thanks to Nghiem Lang Thai for bringing this to my attention).

The Vietnamese system of naming the days of the week fits in perfectly with the traditional Western notion of Sunday as the first day of the week. Unfortunately for Portuguese and Vietnamese, however, the international trend is now to make Monday the first day of the week (Note 1: Is Monday the first day?). The International Standards Organisation (ISO) specifies that the week begins with Monday, a usage that is becoming widespread, for instance in airline timetables. One recent Vietnamese dictionary (the Tư Điển Tiểng Việt), even goes out of its way to point out that thứ ba, the 'third day' or Tuesday, is really only the second day of the week!

The Vietnamese word for 'week' is tuần, short for tuần lễ, which means a 'period/cycle of religious rites'. The word tuần is derived from Chinese ( Mandarin: xún), which refers to a period of ten days, not seven. The ten-day was a common unit of time in China until the advent of the Western-style week and is still popularly used as a way to subdivide the month. In Vietnamese, tuần has lost its original meaning of 'ten-day cycle', except in expressions like thượng tuần, meaning 'the first ten days of the month' (Note 13: 'Xun' and 'tuan', false friends).

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