Q&A: How the Sun Got Its Name

Question: Our homeschool science teacher gave us an extra credit project to ask you a question good enough to use in your blog. She said it had to be one you hadn’t already answered, so after searching your posts here’s what I came up with: How did the Sun get its name? I hope you like my question. — KD, Toledo, Ohio

Answer: You’re right KD, nobody’s ever asked me that question. I did get a similar question regarding the Moon which I answered in my June 13, 2016 post. You might want to take a look at that if you’re interested in etymology — the study of how words were “invented” and how their meanings and spellings evolved.

The first thing you need to know is that even before people started writing, they must have had words for the Sun, Moon, and stars. Astronomical objects were important in all early cultures because understanding how these objects moved was critical for survival. See my May 26,2014 post: The World’s Oldest Profession.

Of course, we have no way of knowing what those words were, or who came up with them. This was too far back in history for etymology to probe. Anthropologists suspect the first spoken languages emerged as early as 35,000 BCE, based on analysis of Cro-Magnon cave art that appears to express ideas with strings of symbols.

The first written language emerged in Sumeria (what is now southern Iraq) around 3500–3000 BCE. Their symbol for the Sun is included in the graphic above. So, of course, they must have had a spoken word for “Sun” but the Sumerian language died out and cannot be traced forward to any existing language by etymologists.

If we look back at the ancient precursors of modern languages, we find several versions of the word used to name the Sun. Here’s some of them:

  • Proto-Germanic: sunno
  • Old English: sunne
  • Dutch: zon or zonne
  • Latin: sol
  • French: soliel
  • Greek: helios
  • English: sun

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “sun” enters our language from Germanic roots. The Online Etymology Dictionary agrees. Problem is, unlike new words such as “computer” or “telescope” or “photograph”, the word “sun” goes too far back in history to find a first use in literature — often a useful etymological clue. When the word “sun” was first used, and who first used it, cannot be determined by the usual methods.

So that’s the best answer I can provide KD. Your question is a good one, but some questions just don’t have definite answers. Yours is one of those questions.

Next Week in Sky Lights ⇒ Why the Moon Follows You

Rainbow on a Railing
Q&A: Why the Moon Follows You