Sleep and dream

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A chart in Wikipedia ("Indo-European vocabulary") [rearranged here] — see under "Bodily functions and states" — shows the connection between words for "sleep" and "dream" in IE languages, including Tocharian.

1. PIE: *swep- "to sleep", *swepnos "dream (n.)" 

2. English: archaic sweven "dream, vision" (< OE swefn); NoEng sweb "to swoon" (< OE swebban "to put to sleep, lull") 

3. Gothic: ON sofa "sleep (v.)" 

4. Latin:  somnus "sleep (n.)"

5. Ancient Greek: húpnos "sleep (n.)"

6. Sanskrit: svápnaḥ "sleep, dream (n.)" 

7. Iranian: Av xᵛafna- "sleep (n.)" NPers xwãb- "sleep" 

8. Slavic: OCS spěti "sleep (v.)", sŭnŭ "sleep (n.), dream (n.)" 

9. Baltic: OPrus supnas "dream", Lith sapnas "dream"

10. Celtic: OIr sūan, W hun "sleep (n.)" 

11. Armenian: kʿnem "I sleep", kʿun "sleep (n.)"

12. Albanian: gjumë "sleep (n.)"

13. Tocharian: A ṣpäṃ, B. ṣpane "sleep (n.), dream (n.)" 

14. Hittite: sup-, suppariya- "to sleep"

Although the activities of sleeping and dreaming are closely related (sleep is the state in which we dream), they are quite different in that, when we sleep we do not always dream.  So I was somewhat surprised to find that the words for "sleep" and "dream" are close cognates or even identical in so many IE languages.  I wonder if the same phenomenon exists in other language families.

Incidentally, while going over the chart, I noticed that the Old Norse word for "sleep" is "sofa".  That made me chuckle because, although we often do sleep on a sofa, Old Norse "sofa" and English "sofa" are false friends and share no cognacy.  

Borrowed from French sofa, ultimately from Arabic صُفَّة(ṣuffa, a long seat made of stone or brick), cognates with Aramaic צפא(ṣipā’, mat). The word may have entered European languages via Turkish or through the Moorish occupation of Iberia.


Now I have to go take a nap and hope that I don't have a nightmare, though I wouldn't mind having a daydream.


Selected readings


  1. Theodoric said,

    November 13, 2020 @ 1:46 pm

    The Dutch word "suf" is also related; "suffen" still means 'sleeping' or 'dozing', but 'suf' as an adjective is a pejorative, usually meaning 'dull'.

  2. Ambarish Sridharanarayanan said,

    November 13, 2020 @ 1:55 pm

    > I wonder if the same phenomenon exists in other language families.

    Not in Dravidian AFAICS. The Tamil verbs for sleeping are uṟaṅku and tūṅku/tuñcu, with noun forms like uṟakkam and tūkkam/tucil, while the noun form for dream is a distinct kaṉā/kaṉavu with no verb equivalent that doesn't use the noun through periphrasis.

  3. Cervantes said,

    November 13, 2020 @ 3:03 pm

    In Spanish, the verb to sleep (dormir) and the verb to dream (soñar) are unrelated. However, the noun for sleep and dream, sueño, is the same. Sueño is also a conjugated verb form (first person singular present indicative), which may require a "yo" for clarity. Not sure what to make of that.

  4. V said,

    November 13, 2020 @ 3:18 pm

    Tocharian "ṣpane" is almost identical to Bulgarian "спанѐ", which is, as wikitionary terms it "the indefinite singular verbal noun of спя (spjă)" — the process of sleeping, as a noun. "Сън" (săn), a noun means both "sleep" in general _and_ "a dream (in your sleep)". Дремка/дрямка (dremka/drjamka) as a noun means "a nap", while "дремя" (dremja) as a verb means both "taking a nap" and "having a daydream / not paying attention to what's happening around you".

  5. Nelson Goering said,

    November 13, 2020 @ 4:05 pm

    "3. Gothic: ON sofa "sleep (v.)""

    Something has gotten a bit garbled here (Gothic is a distinct language, which happens not to attest a cognate of this particular word).

  6. Bob Ladd said,

    November 13, 2020 @ 5:39 pm

    To Latin somnus 'sleep' you could add somnium 'dream'. I think those are the respective sources of the Spanish homophones (?) sueño cited by Cervantes; cf. Italian sonno 'sleep' sogno 'dream'.

  7. martin schwartz said,

    November 13, 2020 @ 7:45 pm

    Avestan x^afna- (my ^ here = raised v) is both 'sleep' and 'dream',
    these mgs. also found in its precise Middle Iranian cognates.
    Greek is interesting, having ónar, óneira 'dream' (contrasting with
    húpar, q.v.); the Classical Armenian cognate is anourJ (J as in Eng. jay) 'daydream', whereas 'dream' is eraz, a borrowing from
    West Middle Iranian (probably Parthian) râz (macron on a)
    'mystery, secret' whence also (Aramaic and Syriac râzâ
    'mystery' and sometimes 'secret meaning, symbol'.
    More can be said about the derivatives of PIE *√swep.
    Btw, it's better to cite the stem form *swepno- and not the nominative *swepnos, esp. since there are noun stems in -os-
    whose nominatives also have -os.
    Martin Schwartz

  8. Scott P. said,

    November 13, 2020 @ 9:24 pm

    Something has gotten a bit garbled here (Gothic is a distinct language, which happens not to attest a cognate of this particular word).

    There are many examples of sleep/asleep/sleeping in the Gothic Bible, of which Romans 13:11 is perhaps the best instance:

    jah þata witandans þata þeihs, þatei mel ist uns ju us slepa urreisan; unte nu nehvis ist naseins unsara þau þan galaubidedum.
    — καὶ τοῦτο εἰδότες τὸν καιρόν, ὅτι ὥρα ἤδη ὑμᾶς ἐξ ὕπνου ἐγερθῆναι, νῦν γὰρ ἐγγύτερον ἡμῶν ἡ σωτηρία ἢ ὅτε ἐπιστεύσαμεν.
    — And that, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed.

    unte jabai galaubjam þatei Iesus gaswalt jah usstoþ, swa jah guþ þans þaiei anasaislepun þairh Iesu tiuh[a]iþ miþ imma.
    — εἰ γὰρ πιστεύομεν ὅτι ἰησοῦς ἀπέθανεν καὶ ἀνέστη, οὕτως καὶ ὁ θεὸς τοὺς κοιμηθέντας διὰ τοῦ ἰησοῦ ἄξει σὺν αὐτῷ.
    — For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him.

    þanuh qeþun þai siponjos is: frauja, jabai slepiþ, hails wairþiþ.
    — εἶπαν οὖν οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτῷ, κύριε, εἰ κεκοίμηται σωθήσεται.
    — Then said his disciples, Lord, if he sleep, he shall do well.

  9. Martin Schwartz said,

    November 13, 2020 @ 11:29 pm

    Also, Persian xw'b [xâb] means both (nouns) 'sleep'
    and 'dream'; 'with 'to see', 'have a dream'. Btw in Semitic, as I think is true generally in non-IE klangs., 'to sleep' and 'to dream'
    are expressed by different roots. Martin Schwartz

  10. Michael Watts said,

    November 14, 2020 @ 9:27 am

    Although the activities of sleeping and dreaming are closely related (sleep is the state in which we dream), they are quite different in that, when we sleep we do not always dream.

    But… you do always dream when you sleep. You just don't remember the dreams.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    November 14, 2020 @ 9:49 am

    You do not dream all the time every time you sleep.

  12. Nelson Goering said,

    November 14, 2020 @ 12:38 pm

    Scott P., yes, of course sleeping is referred to, and we have the √slēp- root amply attested. But we have both that root and the _swefn-_ root are attested in, for instance, Old English. The Gothic corpus is pretty small, relatively speaking, which makes it hard to say whether the absence of a cognate of _swefn-_ is accidental or not.

  13. V said,

    November 14, 2020 @ 2:58 pm

    Victor Mair: Exactly: you do not have dreams every time you sleep properly, and neither do you not have dreams when you just have a nap.

  14. Michael Watts said,

    November 14, 2020 @ 7:18 pm

    you do not have dreams every time you sleep properly

    You would have to sleep for a very brief period indeed to avoid having dreams.

  15. Chris Button said,

    November 14, 2020 @ 8:54 pm

    In Burmese, the first syllable အိပ် ei' of the noun အိပ်မက် ei'me' "dream" means "sleep"

  16. Victor Mair said,

    November 14, 2020 @ 10:29 pm

    @Chris Button

    I'd be curious to know what the second syllable means.

  17. Victor Mair said,

    November 14, 2020 @ 10:36 pm

    "People with sleep apnea frequently wake up for a few seconds to gasp for air. This can happen hundreds of times a night in people with severe sleep apnea…".

    Many people I know have sleep apnea to a greater or lesser degree.

  18. Frank Y. Gladney said,

    November 15, 2020 @ 1:01 am

    OCS spěti means 'succeed'. 'Sleep' is sŭpati, and sŭnŭ 'sleep, dream' has the same root.

  19. Chris Button said,

    November 15, 2020 @ 2:12 pm

    @ Victor Mair

    မက် means "to dream".

    I suppose the combination with "sleep" as the noun "dream" is perhaps to distinguish it from wishful thoughts as opposed to what happens when sleeping.

  20. V said,

    November 19, 2020 @ 5:25 pm

    Michael Watts: I'm sorry, but this is objectively wrong. There are several times (not that many) when I have been in a state of sleep for 8 hours or so, and have not perceived any time subjectively taking place; I assume that means I did not go into REM sleep.

  21. V said,

    November 19, 2020 @ 5:27 pm

    n.b. this has been happening since I was about six years old.

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