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The Influence of Arabic on the Spanish Language

Aidan Cross

Thursday, 11 April 2024

700 years of Islamic rule in Al-Andalus has left its footprint on the Spanish language.

As is well known, Spanish is one of the Romance languages - a subgroup of the Italic branch of the Indo-European language family. It is a direct descendant of the Vulgar Latin that was spoken across the territories of the vast Roman Empire, such as Hispania – from which Spain gets its name – occupied by the Romans for 600 years before the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century and before the arrival of the Germanic tribes. In the year 711, however, the Umayyad Caliphate conquered the Visigothic Kingdom and, for over 700 years, until the fall of the Emirate of Granada in 1492, the existence of Al-Andalus – the Muslim-ruled territories of the Iberian Peninsula – meant that Arabic, a Semitic language from the Afroasiatic language family, was a strong cultural and linguistic influence in Spain.


This influence manifested itself in the various dialects that emerged amongst the populations under Islamic rule. These dialects, called Mozarabic, were closely related to modern Romance languages. As a result, Spanish often has both Arabic and Latin-derived words with the same meaning - for example, “aceituna” and “oliva” (olive) or “ajonjolí” and “sésamo” (sesame) etc. The Arabic-derived words are more common in southern Spain, which was part of the kingdom of Al-Andalus for the longest amount of time and is, therefore, where this influence was strongest. It is estimated that around 8% of the Spanish dictionary comes from Arabic. The most obvious influence on Spanish is words that start with “al”, derived from the definite article in Arabic - e.g. “alcohol” (alcohol), “albaricoque” (apricot), and “algodón” (cotton).


The most common depiction of Al-Andalus is one of conflict, due to the Reconquista, which is how words such as “aljaba” (quiver) and “alcázar” (fortress) came into Spanish. But it was also a multicultural society in which many people lived peacefully side-by-side, trading, sharing their cultures, and finding ways to communicate with each other. The vast majority of words influenced by Arabic reflect this relationship, such as the names of newly introduced foods, many of which would become staples in Spanish cuisine - for example, “albahaca” (basil), “aceite” (oil), “berenjena” (aubergine), “alfóncigo” (pistachio), and “limón” (lemon). And, of course, you can’t make a paella without “arroz” (rice) or “azafrán” (saffron)!


Other words also reveal the extent of this cultural exchange, such as “ajedrez” (chess),  “algebra” (algebra), and “cero” (zero). In fact, Al-Andalus is the route via which the Arabic numerals that we still use today reached Western Europe.


Finally, perhaps the most well-known example of the influence of Arabic on the Spanish language is “ojalá” which is used in the sense of “I hope” or “hopefully” from “law šá lláh” meaning “if God wants” or “God willing”. 


¡Ojalá que al leer este artículo hayas aprendido sobre la influencia árabe en la lengua española!


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