77

I have seen on Facebook, a post (in French) claiming that many words for the night are based on a n+respective number for the number 8. For example on this website,

Language Number 8 night
French huit nuit
English eight night
German acht nacht
Spanish ocho noche
Portuguese oito noite
Italian otto notte
Dutch acht nacht
Swedish aetta natta
Romanian opt noapte
Walloon ût nut
Occitan uèch nuèch
Catalan vuit nit
Gascon ueit nueit
Picardy uit nuit
Piedmontese eut neuit
Esperanto ok nokto

The post goes even further, claiming that N is a symbol for infinity, and that 8 is the typical infinity symbol rotated.


My first reaction was to dismiss it. But then, I've been thinking about it, and would really like to have reasons to dismiss it.

The infinity symbol dates from 1655 (according to Wikipedia)whereas the word nuit was already in use by 1170 (website in French). Furthermore, the word nuit was used as noit in older French, and derives from noctum (latin) and thus nox (littré in French). But unfortunately, my knowledge of Latin is by far too limited to investigate further on the Latin.

Actually, the last link mentions that for the author M. Ad. Regnier, studying the Sanskrit, it could be related to the word naked (German: nackt, Latin: nuda).

In English, (the ight deriving from eight sounds worse than some other examples), what I gather is that

Old English niht (West Saxon neaht, Anglian næht, neht) "night, darkness [...] from Proto-Germanic *nahts

which relate as well to nox (Latin), nuks (Old Greek) or naktam (Sanskrit). The same website also indicates that

according to Watkins, probably from a verbal root *neg- "to be dark, be night."

But, if the relation night -> infinity -> infinity symbol -> 8 -> night, sounds improbable, I cannot find definitive information on a possible relation between the number 8 and the night.

Can you help me get down to the bottom of that question?

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  • 119
    I am a mathematician and have never seen N used as a symbol for infinity. Commented Nov 19, 2018 at 23:33
  • 15
    Related: Linguistics.SE question
    – Oddthinking
    Commented Nov 19, 2018 at 23:57
  • 22
    To sum up, hypothesis A: in each of these languages the word "Night" was independently derived from word "eight". Even in man-made Esperanto. Oh, and coincidentally in most of the languages where the word for number 8 does not resemble "O(K)T", the word for the dark period of the day bears little similarity to it. Hypothesis B: "night" and "eight" sounded similar in the ancestor of these languages, therefore they sound similar in modern languages. Looks like a job for Occam's razor.
    – IMil
    Commented Nov 20, 2018 at 2:50
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    @NateEldredge I bet someone thinks that aleph is a fancy N.
    – hobbs
    Commented Nov 20, 2018 at 2:53
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    Regarding the nonsense The post goes even further, claiming that N is a symbol for infinity, and that 8 is the typical infinity number turned. The turned-sideways eight (∞) is a rather recent invention, recent enough that we know exactly who and when: John Wallis in 1655. I do believe people counted to eight and went to bed at night well before 1655. Commented Nov 20, 2018 at 12:09

3 Answers 3

97

No, they are unrelated.

Some Proto-Indo-European language (PIE) reconstructions from Wiktionary:

  • "eight": "oḱtṓw" (claimed to be a dual of "four fingers")
  • "night": "nókʷts" (possibly from "bare, naked").

As @Schmuddi mentioned in a comment above, it looks just like a coincidence (slightly similar proto-language words). The rest looks like an urban legend.

Sources:

  • McPherson, Fiona. Indo-European Cognate Dictionary. Wayz Press, 2018. (Google Books link)

*oḱtṓw
eight

Germanic: eight (Eng); eahta (OE); acht (Fris); acht (Dut); acht (Ger); átta (Norse); åtte (Nor); åtta (Swe); otte (Dan); átta (Ice)

Celtic: wyth (Wel); ocht, ochtar (Iri)

Hellenic: ὀκτώ (oktṓ) (AnGk); οκτώ (októ) (Gk)

Derivatives: octo-, octa-, octagon, October, octopus, octogenarian, octothorpe, octoroon, octangular, octennial, octave (Eng); octo-, octogonaal (Dut); octō, octagōnon (Lat); huit, octagone (Fr); otto, ottogano (Ital); ocho, octágono, octágono, octógono (Sp); oito (Port); opt (Rom)

Slavic: во́семь (vósem') (Rus); osiem (Pol); osm (Cz); osem (Slo); осум (osum) (Mace)

Baltic: aštuonì (Lith); astoņi (Latv)

Albanian: tetë (Alb)

Indo-Iranian: अष्ट (aṣṭa) (Sans) आठ (āṭh) (Hin); اته (atə) (Pash); هشت (hašt) (Pers)

*nókʷts
night

Germanic: night, nightingale (Eng); niht, nihtegale (OE); nacht, geale, geal (Fris); nacht, ochtend, nachtegaal (Dut); Nacht, Uchte (dial.), Auchte (reg.), Nachtigall (Ger); nátt, nǫ́tt, nótt, ótta (the last part of the night) (Norse); natt, otta, nattergal (Nor); natt, otte, otta, näktergal (Swe); nat, otte, nattergal (Dan); nótt, nátt, ótta, næturgali (Ice)

Celtic: nos, heno, trannoeth (Wel); anocht (Iri)

Italic: nox, noctēscere, nocturnus (Lat); nuit, nocturne (Fr); notte, notturno (Ital); noche, anochecer, nocturno (Sp); noite, anoitecer, noturno (Port); noapte, nocturn (Rom)

Derivatives: equinox, nocturnal (Eng); nüchtern (Ger)

Hellenic: νύξ (núx), νυκτός (nuktós), ἀκτῑ́ς (aktῑ́s) (AnGk); νυξ (nyx), νύκτα (nýkta), νυχτα (nýchta) (Gk)

Derivatives: nyctalgia, nyctophobia (Eng)

Slavic: ночь (noč') (Rus); noc (Pol); noc (Cz); noc (Slo); ноќ (noḱ) (Mace)

Baltic: naktis (Lith); nakts (Latv)

Albanian: natë (Alb)

Indo-Iranian: नक् (nák), नक्तम् (náktam), क्ति (nákti), नक्त (nákta), अक्तु (aktú) (Sans)

  • Watkins, Calvert. The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots. Houghton Mifflin, 2000. (Google Books link)

oktō(u) Eight. (Oldest form *oḱtō(u).) 1a. EIGHT, EIGHTEEN, EIGHTY, from Old English eahta, eight, with derivatives eahtatig, eighty, and eahtatēne, eighteen (-tēne, ten; see dekm̥); b. ATTO-, from Old Norse āttjān, eighteen (tjān, ten; see dekm̥). Both a and b from Germanic *ahtō. 2. OCTANS, OCTANT, OCAVE, OCTAVO, OCTET, OCTO-, OCTOBER, OCTONARY; OCTODECIMO, OCTOGENARIAN, from Latin octō, eight. 3. OCTAD, OCTO-; OCTOPUS, from Greek oktō, eight. 4. AT2, from Sanskrit aṣṭa, eight. [Pokorny *oḱtō(u) 775.]

The most widespread of the words for “night” was nekʷ-t-. Words for “day” include āmer- and agh-2 and such dialectal creations as Latin diēs; ayer- refers to the morning. The Old word for “darkness,” regʷ-es-, shows up in Greek as a term for the underworld.

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    Welcome to Skeptics! Wiktionary doesn't appear to have any references for the comparative analysis that lead to these conclusions. Is there any reason we should accept these reconstructions on Wiktionary over the claims in the original post?
    – Oddthinking
    Commented Nov 20, 2018 at 0:20
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    We generally don't accept wikis as good references for this reason. I would normally recommend following the links the wiki site gives to get direct references, but that isn't possble here.
    – Oddthinking
    Commented Nov 20, 2018 at 2:56
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    @Oddthinking There are several etymological dictionaries of Indo-European languages that confirm that these two reconstructions are the generally accepted ones (with slight variations – I would reconstruct ‘eight’ as *óḱtōu̯ with initial stress, for example), but unfortunately none of them are easily available online. Many of them are referenced on the *nókʷts page on Wikipedia, but they exist in paper form only. Commented Nov 20, 2018 at 17:48
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    I would not call it a coincidence. Basically you have 2 words in protolanguage that contain a very similar core phoneme cluster, so it is actually rather natural they follow a rather similar evolutionary pattern. The only coincidence is at the root, i.e. the similarity in the proto-language (i.e. a single, isolated case where this occurs).
    – Eleshar
    Commented Nov 20, 2018 at 22:49
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    @JanusBahsJacquet: Feel free to quote from (paper) books you have access to.
    – Oddthinking
    Commented Nov 21, 2018 at 1:10
59

In English "eight" and "night" came from different words, "ehte" and "niht" respectively, which have both undergone a common substitution of -gh- for a hard "h", which was a Middle English scribal habit.

In French, "huit" came from "uit" when an "h" was added to avoid confusion with "vit". As for "nuit", it's a transformation of old French "nuict" derived from latin "noctem", which is an inclination of "nox".

The etymological link can be tracked further down, but the two words remain distinct, albeit similar.

So at least for English and French, the similarity between these two words is not due to a common root, but rather to similar ancestor words, and in some cases common transformations which contributed to the similarity of modern forms. I don't know other languages in your list, but they all seem to be either Latin or Germanic, so they likely share their etymological transformation with French and English respectively.

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    Yep, statistically speaking, that out of 7079 languages there should be loads of similarities that are merely coincidental. With such a microscopic and non-independent sample of them as shown in op. This can only be dismissed as chance, even if it would be a great and intriguing party conversation.
    – not2qubit
    Commented Nov 26, 2018 at 12:33
-4

No, night and day come from old Norse.

https://glosbe.com/en/non/night

nátt { noun feminine } The period between sunset and sunrise, when a location faces far away from the sun, thus when the sky is dark.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/N%C3%B3tt

In Norse mythology, Nótt (Old Norse "night"1) is night personified, grandmother of Thor.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dagr

In Norse mythology, Dagr (Old Norse "day"1) is day personified.

Old Norse blended with early Germanic languages, from which English is derived.

The following photo comes from "Discovering Runes" by Bob Oswald, page 160. You can see an alternative spelling of the rune is dagr, which means day.

discovering runs bob oswald page 160

I don't know what is wrong with the image upload feature. The image is the correct orientation when I view it in Windows Explorer and also in XnView.

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    Your last sentence is either badly worded or just plainly wrong. First, Old Norse is not a particularly old language; Old English is at least 200 years older. Second, both languages are Germanic languages, but belong to different branches (West and North Germanic, respectively). Third, while Old Norse did have an influence on Old English when there were Scandinavian settlers in England during the 9th (and partly 10th) century, it's completely misleading to claim that English is derived in any way from Old Norse. In particular, night is of West Germanic origin, and not derived via Old Norse.
    – Schmuddi
    Commented Nov 22, 2018 at 1:28
  • OK You could say night is a loanword from old Norse, just like the days of the week and compass directions.
    – Chloe
    Commented Nov 22, 2018 at 4:17
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    No, it's just wrong to say that English borrowed night from Old Norse. In basically all West Germanic languages (such as English, Dutch and German) as well as North Germanic languages (such as Swedish or Danish) the word has descended from the same prehistoric Germanic root *nakht. The relation between the Old English word for night and the Old Norse one is as best as close as that between you and your niece.The same is also true for day and the words for compass directions. Really, please get your facts right – this can easily checked with any etymological dictionary.
    – Schmuddi
    Commented Nov 22, 2018 at 9:07
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    This answer is factually incorrect in pretty much every aspect. Night and day in English are completely separate from their Old Norse forms. They were not borrowed, nor inherited, nor in any other way influenced by the Old Norse forms; they developed quite independently within English. This is quite easily seen from the facts that (a) night retains its ⟨gh⟩ which was written as ⟨ch⟩ (and pronounced!) long after Old Norse, and (b) day was written with ⟨æ⟩ for centuries, a letter not used to represent ON /a/. Dagr borrowed into OE would probably have yielded *daw instead. Commented Nov 23, 2018 at 18:02
  • @Chloe, perhaps the image hosting service doesn't support the EXIF (JPEG) orientation tag, probably used in your photo.
    – bobbib
    Commented Dec 20, 2018 at 1:24

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