Gent, Ghent, Gand, Gante, Gandawa … our beautiful town has many different names in many different languages. Have you ever wondered why?
The origin of the name Gent
While it is often difficult to be sure about the origin of place names, the accepted explanation for the name Gent is that it derives from the old Gallic (Celtic) word ‘condate’. This word, meaning the confluence of two rivers, was the basis of many different place names around Europe, especially in France (e.g. Condat-sur-Vienne). The Franks (Germanic tribes) that replaced the Celts in the area, adapted the Celtic Gond to Ganta/Ganda.
This theory is validated by the fact that the first settlement in the Gent area was indeed located at the confluence of the Scheldt and the Lys rivers around the area of today’s Portus Ganda. Interestingly enough, both rivers are also known by many different language variants in different languages (e.g. Schelde, Šelda, l’Escaut, Escalda …).
The alternative theory is that the name Gent comes from the pre-Dutch base ‘kant’, meaning a steep slope/water bed, and by extension, ‘a port’. According to the theory’s promoters, this word is also at the root of place names such as Alicante and Kent.
Whatever its true origin, even today you can still find references to the old Ganda name in Ghent: Portus Ganda is now a yacht port for visitors close to the former abbey of St Bavo and a great spot for lounging in the sun on the ‘ship deck’ at the Slachthuisbrug. But ancient Ghent crops up in surprising places too: the famous Ganda ham is a recognised regional speciality from the area around Ghent.
From Ganda to Ghent
So why do so many languages have their own name for this small place somewhere in Flanders anyway? The reason for that lies in the historical importance of Gent: with the growing role of the Low Lands in the Middle Ages, its cities became known across Europe.
Following the establishment of the two large Ghent monasteries in the 7th century, St Peter’s Abbey and the St Bavo’s Abbey, the vernacular Germanic Ganta/Ganda was Latinised to Gandavum. The written sources from that period mention several spellings of the name, with Gandauum and Ganda being the most common. By the end of the first millennium, Ganda was often shortened to Gant/Gand.
Since Latin was the lingua franca of the time, the Romance versions of the name followed that spelling, giving us Gand (French) and Gante (Spanish and Portuguese) respectively. Additionally, the strong dominance of the French language among the ruling classes in the early Middle Ages meant that this language version became the predominant source for other languages too. For example, the old English spelling of the name was Gaunt, as in John of Gaunt, the son of King Edward III of England and Phillipa of Hainaut, who was born in Ghent in 1340.
Although Dutch became the leading language of Ghent in the early 15th century, it is interesting to note that Romance languages and, perhaps surprisingly, Polish kept the Latinised/French root of Ga*, while several other Slavic and Germanic languages followed the Ge*-spelling variant. The English spelling must have changed sometime in the 15th century. By the time of Shakespeare’s writing of the play Richard II (1580s), featuring the character of John of Gaunt, the older variant ‘Gaunt’ had become sufficiently unknown to the general public for Shakespeare to use it as a clever writing tool.
But why do we spell Ghent in English with an h anyway? Surely, Gent would do, like in Flemish? In fact, there might be several reasons for this. The most obvious one is that in contemporary English, there would be too much confusion because the word ‘gent’ already exists with a different pronunciation of the starting consonant (much like ‘j’ in ‘a joke’), and meaning ‘man, gentleman’.
But the historical reasons are more Flemish than we might expect: in the past, the English language knew an additional sound, an old Germanic one, sort of ‘hard h‘ which we still find today in some German (Licht, Nachbar …) and Dutch words (acht). When this sound was first written down using the Latin alphabet, the scribes decided to spell it as ‘gh’. It is easy to imagine that this type of spelling might have also been used when faced with the problem of transcribing the soft g at the start of Gent (especially when spoken in that cute Gent dialect!). The second explanation is that the first typesetters in England came from Bruges, Flanders. When they were setting the English texts for print, they often used the Dutch way of adding an h to words starting with a g.
The fame of Ghent and its name
Thanks to its textile boom and the political realities of the time, Ghent became one of the largest cities in Europe from 11th century on. Known for its booming flax and wool trade, it was bigger than London and second only to Paris in size. In the late Middle Ages, Gent was famous throughout Europe as one of the leading cities of the Habsburg empire and birthplace of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Another way for Ghent to become a household name in different languages were the artistic masterpieces created in that period, such as the Ghent Altarpiece (The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb at St Bavo Cathedral).
Despite its slow decline in importance in the 17th and 18th centuries, Ghent re-emerged as a successful industrial city in the second half of the 19th century. Besides enabling the city to rise once again to global prominence, this economic renaissance served to cement the old knowledge of Ghent and the different linguistic variants of its name across Europe that persist until this day. In fact, such naming diversity influences even the authors at TheSquare.Gent: in honour of the linguistic richness of our town, we have decided to use both the Flemish and the English spelling variants in our texts.