Sunday, April 22, 2012

A nine by any other name

kw: words, religion, meanings, origins

I have had nearly no contact with monasticism, so it is only recently that I learned to what extent Catholic piety is tied to the old Roman concept of time. In the daily discipline of many monastic orders, there is a round of eight sets of prayers. With their approximate time of day they are
  • Vigil – pre-dawn
  • Laud – sunrise
  • Prime – early morning
  • Terce – midmorning
  • Sext – noon
  • None – midafternoon
  • Vesper – early evening
  • Compline – sunset or late evening
For a monk, you could say that "prime time" is about the time the rest of us are just getting up. But let us focus on the fourth, fifth and sixth: terce, sext and none. These words, compensating for two millennia of phonetic drift, are from the Latin words for 3, 6 and 9. In Roman Europe, sunrise marked the start of the day, and was "zero hour". A timekeeper would note when the Sun crossed the meridian, that is, when it was due south, and signal noon, or six hours into the day. Sunset was hour twelve, but was also zero hour for the night watches.

In the monastic orders that keep the old way, one or more timekeepers have the job to ring signal bells when these standard hours occur, so the monks can all pray the office of each hour. This is immortalized in a children's song:

Are you sleeping, are you sleeping,
Brother John, Brother John?
Morning bells are ringing, morning bells are ringing:
Ding, ding, dong. Ding ding dong.

In French it is more revealing:

Frère Jacques, Frère Jacques,
Dormez vouz, dormez vouz?
Sonnez les matines, Sonnez les matines!
Din, dan, don. Din, dan, don.

In the third line, the sleeping brother, who is late with his signal, is exhorted to ring the bells! (or else!!) Poor Brother John. The ninth hour of the night, or three AM, it is tough to keep watch for the rising of a certain star that informs him it is time to ring the Vigil bells. Three other astronomical phenomena, sunrise, Noon, and sunset, are at least easier to anticipate.

I haven't learned how they determined, in any accurate way, the other times. An hour glass would only work for part of the year, because in early days, the lengths of the hours were variable, tied to the interval between sunrise and sunset, and for night watches, the opposite interval. Of course, computers can keep accurate track of any time scheme they like, for more modern monks!

Now I turn to the word that started all this investigation: None. This is not the pronoun "none", an Old English word that means "not one" and rhymes with "fun" or "done". Instead, this word rhymes with "phone" or "stone", and originates from Latin "nonus" meaning nine. Sometimes written "nones", it initially referred to the ninth day of some sequence, such as the ninth day of the month, or of a long celebration. Only in the Sixteenth century was it added to the Divine Office as a prayer-time at three PM or thereabouts.

I find it an amusing coincidence that the pronoun "none", meaning "not one", rhymes also with "nun". Thus in spelling "none" (the pronoun) matches "none" (prayer time at the ninth hour), while in pronunciation "none" (the pronoun) rhymes with "nun" (a woman with a religious vocation).

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