Tuesday, March 28, 2006


In yesterday's post, I discussed the Greek name of Gibraltar, Calpe. Today we'll travel across the sea in our exploration of Hebrew and its related languages.

When we look at the transfer of words between the Semitic languages and the Indo-European languages, we can notice two trends. The Jews were a minority in many lands, and adopted numerous words from their host countries. On the other hand, there were nations from the Semitic family who gave their names to locations, either as sea explorers like the Phoenicians or empire builders like the Arabs.

So to return to Gibraltar, the name comes from the Arabic Jebel el Tarik "the Mountain of Tarik." Jebel derives from the Semitic root גבל - the same as the Hebrew word גבול gvul - meaning border.

Far earlier, the Phoenicians (also known as Punics) explored the Mediterranean and gave many distant places Semitic names. Perhaps the most famous Punic colony was Rome's rival Carthage, whose name in Phoenician was Qart-Hadasht, related to the Hebrew kirya hadasha קריה חדשה - "new city".

According to a theory in the Catholic Encyclopedia, the Phoenicians gave the name to Gibraltar's neighbor Spain (Hispania) as well. One theory claims that the name derives from tsepan - rabbit or hyrax (in Hebrew shafan שפן) and so another name could be "The Land of Rabbits". Another theory posits that Hispania comes from sphan - north (tzafon צפון in Hebrew) due to Spain being north of Carthage.

The Jews had a different way of exploring the world - they did not by ships, but by the text. The 20th verse of the Book of Ovadia states that the exile of Jerusalem in Sefarad (or: Sfarad) will inherit the cities of the Negev:

וְגָלֻת יְרוּשָׁלִַם, אֲשֶׁר בִּסְפָרַד--יִרְשׁוּ, אֵת עָרֵי הַנֶּגֶב

Researchers (D. Neiman, E. Lipinski) have suggested that Sfarad may have been Sardis (capital of Lydia in Asia Minor), suggested by a Lydian-Aramaic bilingual inscription that refers to Sardis as S-p-r-d in Aramaic. But as this article describes well, over time, Sefarad began to be associated with Spain. Targum Yonatan translated the term Sefarad in Ovadia as Espamia, and later the Radak explicitly identified Sefarad with Spain. Now of course, Jews whose families originated in Spain are known as Sefardim.

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