eight night ocho noche huit nuit acht nacht otto notte oito noite
December 9, 2008 10:20 PM   Subscribe

LanguageFilter: I see some connection between the words 'eight' & 'night' in a number of languages. Is there some reason for this?

For example
English: eight night
Spanish: ocho noche
French: huit nuit
German: acht nacht
Italian: otto notte
Portuguese: oito noite
posted by KingoftheWhales to Writing & Language (27 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Well, it appears you are looking at Germanic and Romantic languages, which may make a small coincidence seem much larger than it really is. Once you start looking, at say, Slavic languages, the connection between those two words isn't really there anymore. Still, I'd love to hear an expert weigh in, so I'm keeping my eye on this thread.
posted by piratebowling at 10:30 PM on December 9, 2008

Hmm, interesting. It's not necessarily true that this implies any relationship between the ideas of eight and night -- they could be completely unrelated to each other, but since all these languages come from an Indo-European root, perhaps the original common ancestor language had similar words for these things, by a coincidence.
Another language to consider:
Hindi: aat raath
posted by peacheater at 10:37 PM on December 9, 2008

A commenter here suggests (unconvincingly) that "At some early point within our Indo-European family at least there was something about the number eight which was associated with the day time so that the word for 'night' became 'no eight' in many if not most of the languages."
posted by Knappster at 10:42 PM on December 9, 2008

For another language data point, in Japanese: hachi, yoru. I'd agree with the theory that the languages you've listed are all relatively related, so the root words were probably similar.
posted by you zombitch at 10:45 PM on December 9, 2008

I think piratebowling and peacheater are on the right track. I found this cool language map that lends credence to their answers.

Also, the figure 8 looks a lot like the analemma, which backs up Knappster's idea.
posted by JohnFredra at 10:46 PM on December 9, 2008

Another language to consider:
Hindi: aat raath

This, here, is an instance of transliteration weirdness. The only thing those two words have in common in pronunciation is the "aa" vowel. "th" in transliterated Hindi is an aspirated T and sounds nothing like "th" does in English. As such, I don't think it really adds to the trend pointed out by the OP.
posted by piratebowling at 10:46 PM on December 9, 2008

No, they are not connected. Or rather, all the "eight" words and all the "night" words are connected to each other, but eight and night are not connected.

All the languages you give examples from belong to the Indoeuropean family. The eight words and the night words look similar because they stem from the same root words for eight and night.

Indo European roots.

At that ancient level, they're not so similar.

In languages from other families, eight and night don't rhyme or look similar at all.

It's a coincidence. Or, if there is a reason, there is no record of it, so you can make up any explanation you like.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 10:51 PM on December 9, 2008

piratebowling's right: all these languages belong to the same family (indo-european). (Hindi does too, on preview.) They all have the same roots for each of those two words.

Given that, how come they all differ from each other in the same way? That is, how come the differences between 'noche' and 'notte' and 'nuit' have the exact same pattern as the differences between 'ocho' and 'notte' and 'huit'? The answer is that when dialects evolve, they tend to do so according to general patterns or rules. In this case, we're talking about phonetic evolution. See here for an overview of these patterns in Romance languages; I'm too lazy to link to more sources. The point is that 'tt' in Italian has a relationship with 'ch' in Spanish, 't' in French, 'ch' in German, and so on, in that some original sound from Sanskrit or Latin or Greek eventually evolved into these sounds in each of those languages. Again I'm oversimplifying a lot, but that's the general idea.
posted by trig at 10:53 PM on December 9, 2008 [4 favorites]

As far as I can tell from google,

"eight" in Latin = "octus"
"night" in Latin = "noctis"

All the languages you list are, I think, derived from Latin.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:53 PM on December 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

From an online etymological dictionary:

EIGHT - "eight O.E. eahta, æhta, from P.Gmc. *akhto(u) (cf. O.N. atta, Ger. acht, Goth. ahtau), from PIE *okto (cf. Gk. okto, L. octo, O.Ir. ocht-n, Bret. eiz, Skt. astau, Avestan ashta). Klein calls it "an old dual form, orig. meaning 'twice four.' "

NIGHT - "night O.E. niht (W.Saxon neaht, Anglian næht, neht), the vowel indicating that the modern word derives from oblique cases (gen. nihte, dat. niht), from P.Gmc. *nakht- (cf. O.H.G. naht, O.Fris., Du., Ger. nacht, O.N. natt, Goth. nahts), from PIE *nok(w)t- (cf. Gk. nuks "a night," L. nox, O.Ir. nochd, Skt. naktam "at night," Lith. naktis "night," O.C.S. nosti, Rus. noch', Welsh henoid "tonight")."

Which, on close examination, shows that the roots of both words are similar (to some extent), but I reckon that's pure coincidence. Sounds within a language often shift not just within a word, but within many words. For instance, the "c" in many Latin words became a "p" in Romanian. That's why there are Romanian words that become more familiar to speakers of English or Romance languages if you recognize this fact. "Apa" = "water," but when you think of words like "agua" or "aqua," with more of a hard "k" sound, you can see the link.

Similarly, "eight" is "opt" in Romanian. "Night" is "noapte." But obviously, these are just two words that had a "k" sound (or something similar) in Latin and Greek. I use Romanian, as it's not one of the examples given, but it fits the pattern. It LOOKS like all those languages with their different words share this similarity . . . but in reality, it's just a carry over of the similarity of "night" and "eight" in their Latin or Germanic roots, with phonetic changes peculiar to each language occurring to the pairs. (For instance, French tended to drop "k" sounds before "t.")

That "no eight" comment is just crap, in my opinion.

Here's two more examples that don't fit:

Hungarian (a non-Indo-European language):

eight = nyolc
night = este or éjszaka

Bosnian (an Indo-European language):

eight = osam
night = noc
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 10:57 PM on December 9, 2008

The OED confirms that there's no known etymological relationship between the two words in the languages you've mentioned (sorry I can't link to it as it's a restricted resource; also my cut-and-paste has some character weirdness):

[Cognate with Old Frisian nacht (West Frisian nacht), Middle Dutch nacht (Dutch nacht), Old Saxon naht (Middle Low German nacht), Old High German naht (Middle High German naht, German Nacht), Old Icelandic nátt, nótt (Icelandic nótt), Old Swedish nat (Swedish natt), Danish nat, Gothic nahts <>wikipedia article is an ok starting point) which is most likely behind the similarities in the two words. In each language, a specific set of sound changes will have occurred as that language evolved from its ancestor(s), and given that those changes will result in whatever is phonologically acceptable for that language, it's not surprising that two similar input words (in this case nacht and ahta) will retain their similarity as they undergo the various changes in each language.
posted by tractorfeed at 11:00 PM on December 9, 2008

All the languages you list are, I think, derived from Latin.

German and English aren't (for these words especially), but it's still a coincidence.

This reminds me of a fellow student who was convinced of some conspiracy because the English words "for" and "four" (homophones) were "pentru" and "patru" (almost homophones) in Romanian and somehow, this HAD to mean something. But of course, it too was a coincidence. Language is full of them.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 11:01 PM on December 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

On preview: Doh!

(again from the OED):

[Imitative. Cf. OH int., DUH int.
Popularized by the American actor Dan Castellaneta who provides the voice for the character Homer Simpson in the U.S. cartoon series The Simpsons. The quotation below is his own description of its origin:
1998 Daily Variety (Nexis) 28 Apr., The D'oh came from character actor James Finlayson's “Do-o-o-o” in Laurel & Hardy pictures. You can tell it was intended as a euphemism for “Damn”. I just speeded it up.
Although the word appears (in the form D'oh) in numerous publications based on The Simpsons, the scripts themselves simply specify annoyed grunt (as did the very earliest). Unofficial transcripts of the programme suggest the first spoken use was in a short episode, Punching Bag, broadcast on 27 Nov. 1988 as part of The Tracey Ullman Show. Its earliest occurrence in the full-length series was in the first episode Simpsons roasting on an Open Fire, broadcast on 17 Dec. 1989.]
posted by tractorfeed at 11:02 PM on December 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

To give another simplified example of sound change patterns, think about the now-silent English 'gh' in words like eight, night, light, laugh. In German you have acht, Nacht, Licht, Lache. Both have a common ancestor, and a certain sound in that ancestor language evolved into modern German's ch and modern English's silent gh more or less consistently.
posted by trig at 11:02 PM on December 9, 2008

On preview, tractorfeed and trig have got it. I'll try and rewrite to supplement what they've got:

The Proto-Indo-European root for 'eight' is *okto̅(u), which came down into Germanic as *ahto (pronounce the h like German ch), and into Latin as octo̅. Meanwhile, 'night' was *nekʷ-t, which became Germanic *naht and Latin nox (really noct- for purposes of grammar).

The asterisk in front of some of these words is a standard convention showing that they are reconstructed, not historically documented. We are able to reconstruct them because sound change is mostly regular, as previously mentioned: A sound in a certain environment will change into another sound language-wide, wherever that environment is found. This was a huge discovery in late nineteenth-century linguistics, and is still a beautiful thing. It's called the Neogrammarian Hypothesis. So by comparing related words in different languages, using the sound changes we already know about, we can carefully reconstruct the most likely ancestral sounds and the systematic changes that brought those sounds to their current state. In the process, we try not to postulate more new sound changes than we have to. This is called the Comparative Method, and it's fun if you like puzzles.

Your list of words here rediscovers the Neogrammarian Hypothesis in miniature. English 'eight' and 'night' are similar because 'ahto' and 'naht' were similar, and German 'acht' and 'nacht' are similar for the same reason. Obviously the -o of 'ahto' got dropped, and apparently the change that made h go silent in English doesn't care if there's an n a ways before. You can even sort of put a date on that change by noticing that it happened after the spelling was firmed up (most of the weirdness of English spelling is fossils from older pronunciation, gh-spellings included). And something made the two a sounds act differently in English, don't ask me what.

Meanwhile, over on the Romance side, it looks like all of these languages put an -e on 'noct'. (Not sure why they chose -e, but they did.) The 'ct' sequence was obviously unstable (which is pretty typical), but different languages fixed it in different ways: In Italian, the c assimilated to the t; in French and Portuguese, it just gave up and vanished; and in Spanish something more interesting happened. Each language had its own vowel changes, but they were consistent within each language. And French got uncomfortable with the bare initial u, and sprouted an h to clothe it (compare Fr. 'huile' vs. oil, oleo-, petroleum, etc.).

So the similarity is inherited from a very old coincidence, and the differences between the similarities show some of what's happened since. All together forming a dense web of interconnected ideas that needs no 'no-eight' theory to help it (nor has much room for such).

The reconstructions I cite are from Calvert Watkins, ed., The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.
posted by eritain at 11:47 PM on December 9, 2008 [8 favorites]

Sort of another one:

Irish - eight = ocht, tonight = anocht. But night is oíche, and nocht means naked or bare.
posted by carbide at 12:18 AM on December 10, 2008

the figure 8 looks a lot like the analemma, which backs up Knappster's idea.

Except that the modern shape of that digit only goes back a few hundred years.
posted by Class Goat at 12:27 AM on December 10, 2008

i_am_joe's_spleen and eritain are correct. It's a coincidence.

And you can all stop adding examples of other Indo-European languages where the words for 'eight' and 'night' are similar; they don't add anything to the discussion. The reason they're similar is that the PIE words they all descended from are similar, and that's a coincidence. People vastly underestimate the amount of coincidence in the world, and in language in particular. (Persian bad sounds exactly like English bad and means exactly the same thing, and the two languages are even related, yet it's a coincidence.)
posted by languagehat at 5:44 AM on December 10, 2008

To add to the sheer-coincidence/related-languages theory, here are the two words in Danish:

eight - otte
night - nat

No relation.
posted by Dysk at 6:28 AM on December 10, 2008


eight - shmone
night - lailah

Again, no link.
posted by katrielalex at 6:34 AM on December 10, 2008

It's because the original Indo-European words for eight and night rhymed, and as the words developed through sound shifts, the same rules applied so that the words (usually) still rhyme after 7000 years.
posted by dunkadunc at 6:40 AM on December 10, 2008

Yet another language point:

Scottish Gaelic (Gaidhlig)
eight: ochd
night: oidhche
posted by pecanpies at 8:23 AM on December 10, 2008

How many hours a night do people sleep on average? There you have it.

Kidding. Linguist here, and your range of language is causing confirmation bias.

Here'zs Iñupiaq:

unnuaq -- night (as in several months of it)

tallimat pingasut -- eight of something (as in feet of snow)
posted by fourcheesemac at 11:19 AM on December 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


kahdeksan = eight
yö = night

The two don't share a single letter.
posted by slimepuppy at 1:26 PM on December 10, 2008

All the languages you list are, I think, derived from Latin.

German and English aren't (for these words especially), but it's still a coincidence.

Dee Xtrovert, a non-trivial portion of German, and something like 20% of English, are derived from Latin. FYI.
posted by IAmBroom at 3:22 PM on December 10, 2008

Dee Xtrovert, a non-trivial portion of German, and something like 20% of English, are derived from Latin. FYI.

Some vocabulary, sure - but this has little to do with derivation per se. English and German are Germanic languages, not Romance languages. It can't truly be said that English is "derived" from Latin. Its basic vocabulary and grammar are primarily Germanic; look at list of the 100 most commonly used words in English, and you'll find all but a couple are Germanic. (The percentage of distinctly Latinate words in English may be even higher than 20%, but if you listed every word you used in the course of a day, 90% to 95% of them are of Germanic origin.) The Norman invasion led to an influx of many words with Latin roots, but this was really just an additional layer of words on a pre-existing Germanic base . . . the core grammar and vocabulary of English is Germanic.

For centuries, Latin (and French) were seen as languages of the educated and elite in Great Britain, so their influence on English tends to be overemphasized when people try to classify it.

Languages borrow from one another commonly, and achievements in certain fields by certain cultures might mean that the languages of those cultures (or the educated classes of those cultures) are disproportionately represented in certain fields - look at all the Greek and Latin root words in medicine, for example. But "derivation," linguistically speaking, implies a parent to child relationship that is largely absent in Latin to English, and a language is much more than what is represented by vocabulary.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 4:00 PM on December 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

More to the point, the very common words in question, "night" and "eight," have no roots at all in Latin.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 4:02 PM on December 10, 2008

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