Old Russian Names for the 12 Months

Posted on 07. Feb, 2012 by in language

Ну и зима выдалась! (This is some kind of winter!) Over where I am right now, daffodils and cherry trees are already blooming and folks are strolling around in t-shirts and flip-flops (and no, I am not in the Southern Hemisphere or in the tropics). All the while, my friends in Volgograd, Russia, mention чрезвычайно холодные дни (exceptionally cold days) with temperatures dipping well below -20 degrees C (- 4 degrees F).

In the absence of снег, лёд и мороз (snow, ice and frost), I resorted to watching one of my favorite childhood cartoons, 12 месяцев (12 Months). If you are not familiar with the story, in a nutshell it’s about a little girl sent to the forest to pick подснежники (snowdrops)… in the middle of winter, in the month of сечень.

Wait just a second, you might say. What month is сечень? Months in Russian sound pretty much the same as they do in English since they are based on the Latin names.

This makes their names very easy to remember. But if you are looking for an extra challenge as well as some interesting Russian language trivia, let’s learn old Slavic names for all the 12 months.

Январь (January) was known as просинец from the verb сиять (to shine) since the days were becoming longer. It was also known as лютовей (lit: a month of fierce wind) and трескун, from the word треск (crackle). If you enjoy reading classical Russian literature or playing World of Warcraft in Russian, you are familiar with a phrase трескучий мороз (ringing frost).

Февраль (February) was called сечень since that was the time for cutting down trees. The verb сечь means to hew or to chop (in addition to “to whip”). Other names for February were лютень (fierce), вьюговей (lit: one that blows blizzards) and бокогрей (lit: one that warms up sides). The latter is because the sun is coming out more in February, but there’s still no real heat.

Март (March) was сухий. It sounds very close to сухой (dry) and has the same meaning. Snow melts and some patches might be not only free of snow, but also dry in March. Such patches are called проталины (thaw holes) and earn March its other name, протальник. Finally, it is also грачевник, a month when грачи (rooks) return.

Апрель (April) used to be called берёзозол. It’s a compound noun made up of берёза (birch tree) and зол… But it’s not the same зол as in the sentence папа был очень зол на Сергея (Dad was very angry at Sergey). In other words, it’s not the short form of злой (angry), but rather a no-longer used word related to the verb зеленеть (to become green). So April is the month of greening birches (hey, that’s quite an interesting image – angry crackling birches of January and grinning birches of April).

April’s other names are even more cheerful – снегогон (one driving away snow), ручейник from the word ручей (stream), and первоцвет, another compound noun made up of первый (first) and цвет, here – a short form of цветок (flower). Another piece of trivia for you – the flower примула (primrose) is sometimes called первоцвет (first-flowering).

Май (May) was травный, травник or травень from the word трава (grass). Not much to add here other than it was also called цветень from цвести (to flower) and ярец. Now that last word is interesting. If you try looking it up online, you will get either links to profiles of all the people with the last name Ярец or a page that explains that ярец is a one-year old beaver. However, the month was named after the sun god, Ярило.

Which brings us to июнь (June) or изок as it was known. I’ve never heard of the word изок until now, but turns out, it is an old word for кузнечик (grasshopper). It is also a month of хлеборост. Hint: another compound word made up of хлеб (bread) and растить (to grow). Neither the word изок nor хлеборост are in use now, but скопидом is. It means “a hoarder” and is another name for June since future harvest depends on the work done in June.

Like it so far? Stay tuned to find out about 6 more months!

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23 Responses to “Old Russian Names for the 12 Months”

  1. Minority 7 February 2012 at 4:29 pm #

    Oh my, i doubt someone will be able to use these words. At least, most of Russians wouldn’t understand what you mean. This is too complicated, ’cause periods of year weren’t divided in equal pieces, and were connected to natural events – blossom of birch, for example is “березень”, and it may be march or april :)

  2. E.C. 7 February 2012 at 5:07 pm #

    Actually, these (or similar) “poetic” months of the year are still very much standard in literary Ukrainian, where newspapers, legislation, etc all carry dates like 1 Січня [which actually means January], 3 Лютого [February] etc…. when I was learning the language in the Peace Corps, I always thought it was funny to have to say “my birthday is the 8th of Frosty” :)

  3. yelena 7 February 2012 at 5:33 pm #

    Minority, few of these words are used in Russian language nowadays, however they are still used in other languages, including Ukrainian (see E.C.’s comment) and Polish. Also, from the point of view of словообразование (word-building), these are very interesting words. This might seem nothing but trivia (and I do mention that in the post), yet it’s this quirky trivia that helps bring zest to the learning process. The length of one month was pretty fixed though, didn’t vary too much because it was based on the lunar cycle, hence месяц. I’ll make sure to clarify this in Part 2 :) I was going to do it all at once, but figured slogging through a 1500-2000 word post wouldn’t be all that much fun :)

  4. yelena 7 February 2012 at 5:35 pm #

    E.C. – absolutely. In fact, I have quite a few Ukrainian friends and they use these Slavic names for the months. I find the names very beautiful and want to share them even though their practical application in Russia is pretty much non-existent.

  5. Lonni 7 February 2012 at 6:37 pm #

    I am a cataloger at a research library and I need to know the traditional names of the Russian months. I am cataloging 18th-early 20th century journals that sometimes use the old names of months as designators (poetically, I presume). So thanks for having this information–I am looking out for the other 6 names for July-December!

  6. yelena 7 February 2012 at 9:30 pm #

    Lonni, I haven’t even thought of these words being useful for cataloging. Do you often come across old Russian literary journals?

  7. Richard 7 February 2012 at 11:50 pm #

    Это очень интересно! I find this fascinating as I’ve always wondered why the names of the months in Russian seemed to be basically the same as in English and French. I’ve always thought that with one thousand years of history and culture behind them, the Russians must have had a different take on the times of the year. I’m very pleased to see that the Russian imagination and love of nature is reflected in these words!

    I have two questions:

    1.) Did these older names for the months of the year originate with Church Slavonic?

    2.) When did the Russians start using the Westernized (and far less evocative) names for the months? To me, this seems like something Peter the Great might have introduced….

  8. Richard 8 February 2012 at 12:05 am #

    Yelena,

    I have a request. In this post you mention the sun god, Ярило. Would you be willing to do a post on the ancient Eastern Slavic gods, the pre-Christian gods? I’ve read “The Primary Chronicle” and there is some mention of the gods of Kievan Russia’s polytheistic past, but there’s no real comprehensive overview.

    I’d love it if you could do a post on this sometime!

    Cheers,
    Richard

  9. yelena 9 February 2012 at 1:52 am #

    Richard, I will try to do a post about the ancient Slavic gods. Although you might know more at this point than I do :)

  10. yelena 9 February 2012 at 2:03 am #

    Richard, I am afraid I don’t have good answers for either of your questions. I am not an expert on Church Slavonic, so I can only guess here and my guess would be that the names do not originate in Church Slavonic mostly because they seem to predate Christianization of Kievan Rus’. The second question is a tough one as well. Actually, the best answer I managed to find was along the lines that “scholars aren’t sure” when modern names for the months replaced the old names. It might have been a very gradual move and the two sets of names likely co-existed for a period of time, but in different spheres (Western-style – in government and administrative and Slavic – in everyday use).

    Maybe our readers know more on this subject? If so, please help us out here!

  11. Richard 9 February 2012 at 9:14 am #

    Yelena,

    I agree that the two systems for naming the months could have coexisted over a period of time, that sounds logical. It seems that this was also the case with the early Slavic pagan religions and Christianity.

    I found this site ( http://clover.slavic.pitt.edu/tales/pagan.html ) that lists some of the Russian pagan gods including the god Перун who seems to have been the chief pre-Christian god of the early Slavs. Procopius, the Byzantine historian, apparently made reference to some Slavs who worshipped a god of thunder and lightning, probably Перун. Finally, “The Primary Chronicle” relates how Vladimir the Great had the idol of Перун thrown into the Dnieper River after converting to Christianity.

    Interesting stuff! I think I have a little research to do! LOL

    Anyway, sorry for hijacking the blog and taking it down this side road of pagan gods and whatnot. We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming. ;-)

  12. yelena 9 February 2012 at 2:00 pm #

    Lol, Richard, you’re too funny :) There’s no regularly scheduled programming here (but shh, it’s a big secret). The way I choose what to write about it totally random (ok, almost totally). I’ll try to think of an unexpected way to write about the pagan gods. It is a very interesting topic, so thank you for the idea!

  13. MIke 10 February 2012 at 4:35 am #

    re. western vs. slavic names. I would guess the current names for the months entered Russian via the Church and Old Church Slavonic. They are the same as the Latin names of the Julian calendar which was also used by the Orthodox church. Here’s an interesting article on the subject: https://www.familysearch.org/learn/wiki/en/images/6/66/Old_Church_Slavonic_Numbers,_Dates,_and_Months_by_Matthew_Bialawa.pdf

  14. Richard 10 February 2012 at 6:49 pm #

    Thanks for the great link Mike! I think you’re right: Kievan Rus’ probably started using the Latin names for the months after Vladimir the Great accepted Christianity, although the general population likely used both systems for quite a while as old habits die hard.

    One problem with recreating the world of Kievan Russia is that it was essentially an oral society; it wasn’t until Christianity arrived that written records started to appear.

  15. Sarahjane 11 February 2012 at 10:09 am #

    Off-topic, but to Richard:

    I know it’s standard, but I dislike translating Киевская Русь as “Kievan Rus.” I think it’s the proximity to the name Kevin. Hard to think romantically about a place apparently populated with Irish builders. I think we should call it Kievskaya Rus’ in English.

  16. Richard 12 February 2012 at 12:22 am #

    Actually Sarahjane, archeologists digging in a park in Kiev recently found a pint glass with a Guinness label on it and a CD by The Pogues, both items are estimated to be over one thousand years old!

    Seriously though, the thing about Anglophones is that we always anglicize everything, this has bothered me over the years too but it’s not likely to change anytime soon. “Kievskaya Rus’” is obviously better both linguistically and culturally, but you can’t fight city hall.
    What the hell, you could always just open a pub and call it “Kevin’s Russia”, if that doesn’t confuse people nothing will! ;-)

    Erin go Bragh! Or, as the Irish would say, Éire go Brách! (Yep, another anglicization LOL)

    Richard

  17. Franz Miklosich 18 August 2013 at 9:02 am #

    Franz Miklosich identified some 95 different roots of Slavic month names and organized them in a primarily semantic, partially etymological format in: Miklosich, Franz. 1868. “Die slavischen Monatsnamen,” Denkschriften der kaiserlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Philosophisch-historische Classe. Wien.


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