Friday June 8, 2007

next next and previous previous

Some languages, including English, have single words for 'yesterday' and 'tomorrow', but only multi-word phrases for 'the day before yesterday' and 'the day after tomorrow'.  Other languages have single words for those meanings; Japanese, for example, in addition to 昨日 /kinoo/ 'yesterday' and 明日 /ashita/ 'tomorrow', has 一昨日 /ototoi/ 'the day before yesterday' and 明後日 /asatte/ 'the day after tomorrow'.  In fact, it even has a word (which I was reminded of while using Jim Breen's indispensible WWWJDIC) for 'the day after the day after tomorrow', 明明後日 /shiasatte/, though there doesn't seem to be a corresponding term for 'the day before the day before yesterday'.

I'm curious how common lexical items like this are across the world's languages, and not just for temporal sequences.

So, a small survey.  For languages that you know, are there single words for:

  1. 'yesterday' and 'tomorrow' (let's call these first-order)
  2. 'the day before yesterday' and 'the day after tomorrow' (second-order)
  3. 'the day before the day before yesterday' and 'the day after the day after tomorrow' (third-order)
  4. other temporal sequence terms (hours, weeks, months, years, etc)
  5. Furthermore, does the language have, in addition to first-order words meaning 'next' and 'previous' for general sequences, second-or-higher-order words that mean 'the one after the next', 'the one before the previous', and so on?

As an aside, let me give you an example of a false example of second-or-higher-order terms.  Consider the English words prior and subsequent, which can be used for greater-than-first-order sequences in contrastive constructions:

(1) The previous train was full, but prior trains were mostly empty.
(2) The next train was full, but subsequent trains were mostly empty.

In these examples, prior and subsequent cover everything past the first-order; furthermore, I don't think they can be used as first-order terms when next and previous are also used:

(3) * The prior train was full, but previous trains were mostly empty.
(4) * The subsequent train was full, but (the) next trains were mostly empty.

However, prior and subsequent can be used to refer to any order, including the first:

(5) His train was full, but prior trains were mostly empty.
(6) His train was full, but subsequent trains were mostly empty.

Because they're ambiguous this way, and because they refer to an open-ended range of orders rather than one, I don't consider prior and subsequent to be examples of true second-order terms.  Can you come up with examples from other languages?

(I should say, before somebody criticizes my survey methodology, that this isn't for a research project I'm working on, it's just an informal survey because I'm just curious.)

[Now playing: "Naked Eye" by Luscious Jackson]

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Romanian has:

tomorrow - mâine
yesterday - ieri

day after tomorrow - poimâine
day before yesterday - alalteieri (variant: alteieri)

day after day after tomorrow - răspoimâine
day before day before yesterday - ?

Like Japanese, there doesn't seem to be a term for "day before day before yesterday". Also, you can play with "răspoimâine" if you like, adding another răs- for every additional day in the future. But no one does that seriously--it's more of a children's language game.

I don't know of any other second-order temporal terms.

Posted by: JS Bang at Jun 8, 2007 11:06:52 AM

In Swahili:

Yesterday - jana
Tomorrow - kesho

The day before yesterday - juzi
The day after tomorrow - kesho kutwa

The day after the day after tomorrow - mtondo
The day before the day before yesterday - ?

The day after the day after the day after tomorrow - mtondo goo / mtondogoo
The day before the day before the day before yesterday - ?

For 'next' and 'previous' month, week, year etc, the most common approach is to add suitably inflected forms of the verb "to come" or "to pass", e.g.

next year - mwaka ujao
last year - mwaka uliopita

next week - wiki ijayo
last week - wiki iliyopita

next month - mwezi ujao
last month - mwezi uliopita

But it's also possible to apply the words for days as modifiers, so

mwaka kesho - next year
mwaka jana - last year
mwaka juzi - the year before last

mwezi jana - last month
mwezi juzi - the month before last

and so on.

I'm not aware of any terms for general sequences meaning "the one after the next" or "the one before the last".

Posted by: Sam at Jun 8, 2007 12:06:38 PM

You may find this discussion interesting.

Posted by: Gareth Rees at Jun 8, 2007 12:06:56 PM


tomorrow - morgen
yesterday - gestern



... but the bucket stops here. These last ones (third order) are informal in the sense that I wouldn't use them in formal writing, but would in speech with just about everyone.

Posted by: Chris W. at Jun 8, 2007 1:08:43 PM

Tibetan (as far as I can glean from my textbook) has the following:

Day before yesterday: ཁེ་ཉིན་ཀ་ khe nyin ga /khēnyinka/
Yesterday: ཁའི་ས་ kha'i sa /khǟsa/ (or the literary ཁ་སང་ kha sang /khāsang/, which can also mean "a few days ago")
Today: དེ་རིང་ de ring /the̱ring/
Tomorrow: སང་ཉིན་ sang nyin /sāngnyin/
Day after tomorrow: གནངས་ཉིན་ཀ་ gnangs nyin ka /nāngnyinka/
Day after the day after tomorrow: གཞེས་ཉིན་ gzhes nyin /she̱nyin/

Japanese has at least 1st & 2nd order terms for year, week & month. Tibetan has words for "last year" and "next year"... any others aren't in here (I don't have either a good English-Tibetan dictionary or a native speaker to hand). There are also words for "yesterday evening", "this morning", "this evening", "tomorrow morning" & "tomorrow evening", but that isn't quite the same thing.

Posted by: Tim May at Jun 8, 2007 6:44:01 PM

Yeli Dnye, a Papuan language, is said to have monomorphemic words for each of the next *ten* days after "today". I don't know what they are though.

And it only goes as far back into the past as "the day before yesterday".

Posted by: anonymous at Jun 9, 2007 4:27:26 AM

According to Adams Bodono's The Structure of Dagaare, Dagaare, a Gur language spoken in Ghana and Burkina Faso, has (among others) the following temporal adverbials:
daar "two days ago", zaameng "yesterday", zenε "today", bieu "tomorrow", dayere "two days from now", datara "three days from now", dagbollo "four days from now", daneenε "five days from now". (There may be more; the relevant passage begins "The following is a list of some typical adverbials in Dagaare". However, Bodono connects the adverbial system with the traditional five-day Dagaare week, so this part of the list may be complete.)

Posted by: Jim Parish at Jun 9, 2007 5:50:48 AM

In Swedish you have the same constructions as in German, but i have never heard the use of more than second order tomorrow-constructions.

yesterday: igår, i förrgår, i förförrgår
tomorrow: i morgon, i övermorgon

There is also a word for "the last morning" (the morning of today), i morse. For "last year" we say i fjol and the year before last year is förfjol.

Posted by: Åka at Jun 9, 2007 7:46:33 AM


toissapäivä (second? day): -2
eilinen (yesterday): -1
tämä päivä (this day): 0
huominen (tomorrow): +1
ylihuominen (overmorning): +2

So, we have no word for today. There is the adverb tänään for it, though, but no noun that I can think of.

Posted by: Erkki at Jun 9, 2007 10:53:37 AM

In Danish, we have similar constructions to those in German and Swedish:

Yesterday: i går
Tomorrow: i morgen

The day before yesterday: i forgårs
The day after tomorrow: i overmorgen

The day after the day after tomorrow could be constructed as "i over-overmorgen". It's not exactly standard, official language, but I have heard it used in daily speech. I wouldn't use "i for-forgårds" except jokingly.

A day in the past that's not too long ago ("the other day", I guess) is "forleden dag" or just "forleden" ("the other day" would be litteraly translated "den anden dag").

We also have "i fjor" as in Swedish, but I'm not sure whether it's "last year" or "the year before last year" -- I'd say the latter, but it's not a very common word nowadays. The year before would be "i forfjor", but that's even rarer.

This morning: i morges
Last evening: i aftes
Last summer/winter: i sommers/vinters

An interesting construction is "på [weekday] otte dage" ("on [weekday] eight days"). For instance, "på fredag otte dage" means "the friday after next friday". Informal, but quite useful.

Posted by: Bjørn at Jun 9, 2007 9:01:59 PM


1. tomorrow 'demain'
yesterday 'hier'
2. day after tomorrow 'le lendemain'
day before yesterday ???

Posted by: Neal Whitman at Jun 11, 2007 8:42:11 AM

I don't really "speak" Ainu yet, but I've learnt these:

1a. tomorrow - nisatta (← nisat, daybreak)
1b. yesterday - numan

Checking the dictionaries I also found:

2a. day after tomorrow - oyasim before yesterday - hoskinuman (← hoski, "last", "before")

3a. day after 2a -> oyasim-simkehe
3b. day before 2b -> hoski-an-numan

(I have hyphenated those last two because I suspect they would be analyzed as 2/3 separate words [respectively] by native speakers, which excludes them from what you want. But even if that's the case they're at least common enough as phrases to make it into dictionaries/phrasebooks. Also there are many dialects of Ainu etc. etc.)

Posted by: Matt at Jun 11, 2007 9:18:20 AM

(p.s. さきおととい)

Posted by: Matt at Jun 11, 2007 9:19:19 AM

Whoops, forgot about the other questions.

"Hoski" for "last" is applied to years, seasons, etc. as well as days.
Same goes for "hoski-an" for "X before last", at least according to my dictionary.
The "oya" from "oyasim" (← oya, "another", "different") can also be applied to some time terms, in much the same way.

hoski-an-pa - year before last
hoskipa - last year
tanpa - this year
oyapa - next year

[Can't find any source for a way to say "year after next"...]

Posted by: Matt at Jun 11, 2007 9:34:31 AM

कल kal - yesterday or tomorrow
परसों parasoṃ - the day before yesterday, or the day after tomorrow, ie two days from today
तरसोँ tarasoṃ - the day before the day before yesterday, or the day after the day after tomorrow, ie three days from today

Posted by: John at Jun 15, 2007 10:20:51 AM

What an excellent blog.

It doesn't look like anyone's spoken about Russian, so

Yesterday: vchera
Tomorrow: zavtra
Day-Before-Yesterday: pozavchera (poza- not being a productive prefix)
Day-After-Tomorrow: poslezavtra (written as one word, I believe, though posle as its own lexeme simply means after.)

To the best of my knowledge, that's as far as it goes.

Posted by: Maury D'annato at Jun 15, 2007 11:35:27 AM

"Le lendemain" in French just means "the day after", rather than necessarily "the day after tomorrow". This is usually rendered as "après-demain" whereas going the other way, there is "avant-hier" for the day before yesterday.

Posted by: at Jun 19, 2007 2:43:47 AM

Klingon has a regular productive method of forming such words, by having separate single words meaning, for example "days ago" and "days from now."

The normal word for day (dawn to dawn) is jaj. But the words Hu' (get up) and leS (relax, rest) form compounds with the cardinal numbers to create all our yesterdays and tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.

wa', cha', wej = one, two, three

wa'Hu' - yesterday
cha'Hu' - the day before yesterday
wejHu' - the day before that

wa'leS - tomorrow
cha'leS - the day after tomorrow
cha'vatlhleS - two hundred days from now

There are similar words for other time periods.

Posted by: Qov at Jun 19, 2007 7:18:34 AM

Hebrew (all words transliterated into English):

Yesterday: "etmol"
Tomorrow: "machar"
Day before yesterday: "shilshom" - probably somehow related to "shalosh" (three) + "yom" (day) or + "hayom" (today)
Day after tomorrow: "macharataim", which I would guess is a combination of "machar" and "shtaim" (two)
No third-order words that I can think of (I'm a native speaker, but no linguist, unfortunately).

We also have a world for last year : "eshtakad" that comes from Yiddish, I believe.

There are words for next and last, that can also be used with the normal words for day, year, etc.

Can anybody shed any more light on this ?

Posted by: guy at Jun 21, 2007 3:21:49 AM


a la noche = tonight
anoche = last night
antenoche or anteanoche = night before last

Chinese (Mandarin):

There is a two character set that means "today." The second character of the set is the word for "sky."

By changing the first character in the set, you can get the character set that means tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, yesterday, or the day before yesterday.

I'm sorry that I cannot illustrate this with the characters.

Posted by: willyum at Jun 21, 2007 6:06:51 AM

This is guy, I posted the info about the Hebrew words, but the software somehow switched me to the Spanish post :)

sorry everyone, I do not speak an Spanish at all, lol.

Posted by: guy at Jun 21, 2007 3:34:42 PM

Some clarifications regarding the Hebrew words:

1. There is yet another word I missed, this word is fairly uncommon, but no archaic by any means. "Emesh" means last night, or last evening, and my dictionary also lists a second definition of "darkness" which I have never heard in actual conversation.

"Eshtakad" comes from Yiddish indeed, is actually ahort for "shata" (year) and "kadmaa" (previous).

There is also a Hebrew (Yiddish) word called "eshtada" which similarly means this year ("shata" + "da"), I have not heard this word used in conversation or seen it written.

I could not dig anything else on the other words, except that they are all originally Hebrew.

Posted by: guy at Jun 22, 2007 6:38:58 AM

I can explain a bit of the etymology of the Hebrew words (based on Klein's Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language:

etmol: originally tmol, found also in Aramaic
machar: a contraction of me'achar, related to me'uchar - "later". there are other theories about the word as well

emesh: the verb "to darken" comes from emesh - "last night" (and not the other way around). emesh has cognates in Arabic and Akkadian

shilshom - literally "three days ago" - (i.e. today, yesterday, the day before that)

macharatayim - surprisingly not in the dictionary, but the I think "two tomorrows" makes sense

eshtakad - from Aramaic (not Yiddish). a contraction of the phrase "shata kadma'ah" - "the preceding year". Shata means "year" in Aramaic

Posted by: Dave (Balashon) at Jun 22, 2007 7:44:13 AM

Hebrew's been pretty much covered, all I can think of adding is a confirmation that macharatayim is in fact machar (tomorrow) subjected to the "doubling plural" -(t)ayim, so literally "two tomorrows"

Posted by: Oren at Jun 26, 2007 4:37:35 PM

Polish seems to be much like German in this respect:

wczoraj 'yesterday'
jutro 'tomorrow'

przedwczoraj (przed is literally 'before')
pojutrze (po is literally 'after')


I'd say przed- and po- are fully recursive here, so I would find popopopopopopopojutrze grammatical, but people hardly ever go beyond 2.

Posted by: AJ at Jun 30, 2007 6:49:45 AM

Irish uses arú before any of aréir/inné/anuraidh/amárach [last night/yesterday/last year/tomorrow] to mean the previous/next one. I think "arú arú" is only used jocularly. There are also "anóirthear" and "amanathar" alternative to "arú amárach".

Posted by: mollymooly at Jul 5, 2007 2:53:39 PM

Estonian has similar constructions to German and the Scandinavian languages

üleülehomme (+3)
ülehomme (+2)
homme (+1)
täna (0)
eile (-1)
üleeile (-2)
üleüleeile (-3)

Posted by: martk at Jul 22, 2007 7:26:32 AM

I just spotted a use in the wild of Japanese sakiototoi to mean the "the day before the day before yesterday," so appearantly Japanese does have such a term.

Posted by: includedmiddle at Jul 26, 2007 11:09:17 AM

I just spotted a use in the wild of Japanese sakiototoi to mean the "the day before the day before yesterday," so appearantly Japanese does have such a term.

Sorry, Matt's already scooped you above with this comment, although he did use a different writing system.

Posted by: The Tensor at Jul 26, 2007 1:28:34 PM

I would like to bear a new word for English for day before yesterday.
I hope you would like and will appreciate.
"Day before yesterday" = "FORMER DAY"
Please Comments.

Posted by: Khalid Khan at Aug 3, 2007 3:01:22 AM

I too was surprised that you didn't ask about the relative terms "the day before", "on that day" and "the day after", because I did know about the french word "lendemain".

Anyway, Hungarian has the following terms.

"ma" = today,
"tegnap" = yesterday,
"holnap" = tomorrow,
"tegnapelőtt" = the day before yesterday,
"holnapután" = the day after tomorrow.

All of these but "ma" can be used both as adverbs and nouns. There are also adjectives derived from these like "mai", "holnapi" etc.

The first three are almost compulsory, in that in speech you almost always use them to refer to the day they mean; whereas the last two are optional in that those days are often referred to by the name of the day of the week they fall on, or by date. The compounds

"tegnapelőtt-előtt" = the day before the day before yesterday
"holnapután-után" = the day after the day after tomorrow

also exist but are only used rarely and informally. There is no word equivalent to the English tonight.

For relative reference, there is the word

"aznap" = that day

but only two-word phrases phrases for the adjacent days:

"előző nap" = the previous day
"következő nap" = the next day

Strangely, these three can also be used as adverbs though they sound more like a noun. I believe no fixed phrases to refer two days before, only ugly ways to describe it.

Finally, there is no word meaning next next or previous previous in general, but there's a common phrase

"utolsó előtti" = last but one, ie. the second counting from the end.

Posted by: jonas at Jun 11, 2008 4:05:07 PM