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LINGUIST List 19.3795

Thu Dec 11 2008

Qs: Languages Where 'night' Means '24 hour Period'

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        1.    Maarten De Backer, Languages Where 'night' Means '24 hour Period'

Message 1: Languages Where 'night' Means '24 hour Period'
Date: 11-Dec-2008
From: Maarten De Backer <m.debackerugent.be>
Subject: Languages Where 'night' Means '24 hour Period'
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Dear linguist,

I am currently working on the ''principle of neutralization'' as espoused
by Coseriu and other linguists from the structural-functional paradigm.
This principle states that a functional opposition between two (or more)
lexical units or grammatical categories can be suspended in certain
syntagmatic positions. In such a case, one of the units semantically
encompasses the other unit of the opposition.

An interesting example from the lexicon is the lexical pair day/night. In
English, for example, night is opposed to day and can be defined as ''that
part of a twenty-four period that is characterized by the absence of
sunlight''. Accordingly, day can be defined as ''that part of a twenty-four
hour period that is characterized by the presence of sunlight''. However,
in certain contexts, day (not night) can be used to refer to a period of
twenty-four hours as a whole. For example, in the sentence, The tourists
stayed in Paris for five days, the lexical unit day is used to refer to
five periods of twenty-four hours and then the opposition between ''absence
of sunlight'' and ''presence of sunlight'' is cancelled.

It seems that in most or all languages spoken on the West-Europe continent
it is always the term day that can be used with the neutral meaning ''a
period of twenty-four hours'' and that the term night is excluded from
having a neutral meaning. A counterexample, however, is provided by modern
Icelandic, where not only the word for day (dagr), but also the word for
night (natt or nott) can have a neutral meaning. In this language, time is
counted, not by days, but by nights. Similarly, an infant is in Iceland
said to be so many nights old, not days (note that the use of the term
night to refer to a twenty-four hour period was also typical in the Old
Germanic languages - cf. Grimm Deutsches W├Ârterbuch - but that is another

My question is whether there are more languages nowadays (e.g. non-European
languages) where the term for night can be used for a ''twenty-four hour
period''? Particularly of interest would be those languages where only the
word for night can have a neutral meaning and day is excluded from being
used with the meaning ''twenty-four hour period''. I will be very grateful
for any information.

Thanks in advance

Best regards,

Maarten De Backer
Ghent University (Belgium)

Linguistic Field(s): Semantics

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