The Great Influence of Arabic on the Spanish Language

The Great Influence of Arabic on the Spanish Language

You’ve probably heard that Spanish is a Romance language, in other words, it derives from Latin. But did you know about the significant influence of Arabic on the Spanish language?

According to Rafael Lapesa, philologist and member of the Spanish Royal Academy, there are around 4.000 Spanish words that come from Arabic. That’s more than the 8% of the Spanish dictionary! But, how come that we have adopted so much vocabulary from Arabic?

Spain under the Moorish rule

When we think about European culture, one of the first things that usually come to our mind is the Renaissance. But did you know that hundreds of years before the Renaissance there was a huge humanistic beauty in the Muslim Spain?

Around the year 711, the Muslim forces started to invade the Spanish territories, which they conquered in less than a decade.

Under Moorish rule, Spain became one of the greatest civilisations of the world, with Cordoba as the base of their Caliphate. While Europe was plunged in the dark Middle Ages, Spain was a flourishing nation: The Arabs had brought their knowledge on physics; medicine; mathematics; astronomy; agriculture and architecture, among other fields. And let’s not forget about about their language!

The Muslim period in Spain is often described as a ‘golden age‘ of learning, where libraries and universities were established and literature, poetry and architecture flourished. There was a rich and sophisticated society who was also tolerant towards other religions. For instance, we know Toledo as “the city of the three cultures” since thousands of Muslims, Jews and Christians peacefully coexisted there.

However, everything comes to an end. Due to internal rifts in the Muslim power structure, the glorious caliphate broke up into warring factions. The Christian kingdoms saw this as a great opportunity, and they began to re-conquer Spain, a process that lasted over 700 years. Finally, the Muslim rule ended in 1492, a crucial date for the Spanish history: The Catholic Monarchs completed their Reconquista by taking Granada, the last Muslim territory in Spain; Colombus arrived in the American continent; and the first Spanish grammar book, by Antonio de Nebrija, is published.

The Alhambra, built in the 13th century in Granada. This palace is one of the best-preserved palaces of the Islamic world.

A linguistic legacy: The influence of Arabic on the Spanish language

The influence of Arabic on the Spanish language has been very significant due to the Moorish presence in Iberian peninsula for almost eight centuries. However, we could say the Arabic vocabulary is more prominent in the south, a territory that they called Al-Andalus. Yes, Andalusia comes from there! Let’s learn now some Spanish words we use all the time that come from Arabic!

  • Prefix al-: Many Spanish words that we use in our daily life start with the prefix al-. This is because in Arabic ‘al’ is the equivalent of the Spanish article ‘el, la’. Such is the case of algodón (cotton); alfombra (rug); alquimia (alchemy) and almohada (pillow). Also, many southern towns founded by the Arabs have this prefix, such as Almería (Al-mariyya = Watchtower), Albacete (Al-Basit = The shallow) or Algeciras (Al-Gazira = The Green Island). However, not all Spanish words starting with this prefix are Arabic!
  • Words with the prefix az-: As mentioned above, the Muslim rule was characterised by a great growth in agriculture, so it makes sense that many words are related to this field. Such is the case of azafrán (saffron) or azahar (orange blossom). More examples below:
  • Expressions: One expression that Spaniards use very often is “¡Ojalá!” (I hope). It comes from the Arabic ‘law sha’a Allah’ (If Allah wishes). Also, when we want to say that something is cool in Spanish, we call it “guay”. This term comes from ‘kuaiis’ (meaning ‘of good quality’).

Our Arabic past is what makes us different

Apart from Spanish, I also teach English and French. One day, when I was organising some materials in the staff room, I found something that called my attention: It was a colourful, multilingual wheel focused on food vocabulary. This “game” included five languages: English, French, German, Italian and Spanish. Quite an ordinary resource to have in the Languages department, right? But what struck me the most was that some Spanish words were so different to the other ones. How could this be if Spanish, Italian and French were Romance languages?

The reason: The words that caught my attention had something in common: Their origin was Arabic.

That is just a small linguistic sample, but it proves the great influence of Arabic on the Spanish language.

Of course, since Spanish is a Romance language, the Latin influence is much bigger: Around 70 % of our vocabulary comes from Latin in comparison to Arabic (just 8 %). Nevertheless, these two languages give “doublets”: Two words of different ethymological origin that designate the same thing or concept:

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