Swedish Wish

By Philologos

Published October 17, 2007, issue of October 19, 2007.
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Reader Debbie Rabina writes:

“We have just returned from a family vacation in Sweden, where we spent some enjoyable time in the old city of Stockholm — Gamla Stan. The name immediately brings to mind the site of Gamla on the Golan Heights, and I am curious as to a possible connection between these two places, especially since some Googling revealed that a Swedish Gamla — Gamla Uppsala — is somehow related to ancient mounds. Is there an etymological connection between the Gamla in the Golan and the one in Sweden?”

Not in the slightest. Gamla Stan means “old town” in Swedish, gamla being Swedish for “old” and stan (an elided form of staden) for “town.” The first of these words comes from an old proto-Germanic root that has close cognates in other Germanic languages, gammel meaning “old” in Danish, “rundown” or “ramshackle” in Dutch and “junk” in German dialect. Similarly, Gamla Uppsala means “old Uppsala.” The ancient burial mounds that are found there and that comprise an important archaeological site are gamla because they are ancient, not because they are mounds.

True, the ancient Jewish city of Gamla on the Golan Heights is also an important archaeological site, but that is where the resemblance stops. Gamla in Aramaic, the language spoken in Palestine and Syria in the early centuries of the Common Era, means “camel.” (In Hebrew, Aramaic’s sister Semitic language, the word is gamal.) The first-century C.E. Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, or Yosef Ben-Matityahu to use his Hebrew name, explains the name in his book “The Jewish War.” In describing the bloody and ultimately successful siege of the city by the Roman army during the great Jewish revolt against Rome that broke out in 67 C.E., he writes:

“Gamla refused to surrender, relying on its inaccessibility… [It was built on] A shaggy spur [that] descends from a high mountain, rising midway to a hump whose downward slope from its summit — in front and behind — is of equal length; this lends it the shape of a camel, whence it derives the name.”

Josephus, as can be vouched for by whoever has visited the Israeli-excavated ruins of the site, knew Gamla well, having been the general who prepared its defenses for the Roman assault. Nothing in its topography has changed in the last 2,000 years, the only difference being that it no longer has its houses — which, Josephus wrote, “were built against the steep mountain flank and were astonishingly huddled together, one over the other; as a result of its steepness the town seemed to hang in the air and looked as if it were about to topple headlong upon itself.”

Josephus also makes a puzzling remark about the name Gamla. Right after describing the camel-like appearance of the site, he observes, in my English translation of “The Jewish War,” that “the local inhabitants pronounce the distinctive sound of the name inaccurately.” What could he have meant by this?

Since “The Jewish War” was written for a non-Jewish audience in Greek, in which the word for camel, a Middle-Eastern animal unknown in Greece, was the Semitic loan word kamelos, there would seem to be two possible ways of interpreting Josephus’s remark. One is that, since the Greeks said kamelos and not gamelos, Josephus was explaining to his readers why the name of the town was Gamla and not Kamla. (Not possessing a Greek text of “The Jewish War,” I can’t check its original language, but it may well be that the Greek adjective translated in my English version as “inaccurately” would have been rendered as “differently.”) The other is that the inhabitants of Gamla themselves did not pronounce the name of their town as it is spelled. The first of these possibilities seems to me more likely.

In any case, whether the Greeks borrowed kamelos from Aramaic, Hebrew or Phoenician (it couldn’t have been from Arabic, in which the word for camel is jamal), it was their substitution of “k” for “g” that set the standard for all European languages after them, starting with Latin camelus. This is why we have camels and not gamels in English. And yet English came close to not having camels either, since in the same 10th century in which the word “camella” made its earliest appearance in Old English, a synonym for it, “olfend,” also appeared and competed with it for the next several hundred years. Had things turned out a bit differently, 20th-century Americans might have smoked Olfends rather than Camels.

Why olfend? Apparently this is a variant of “elephant,” which first turns up in Middle English as “olifaun” or “olifunt,” from Latin elifantus, from Greek eliphantos (the genitive form of eliphas). Since medieval Englishmen had no opportunity to see either camels or elephants, and knew them only from vague descriptions, it is easy to understand why, as two of the world’s three tallest mammals, they could have been confused. (The third of the trio is of course the giraffe, once known, because of its height and spotted hide, as the camelopard.) We’ve come a long way from the old city of Stockholm.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.

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