The Influence of Arabic on the Spanish Language

When North African Muslims (often referred to as the Moors) defeated the Visigothic King Roderic and subsequently swept through the Iberian Peninsula, they began nearly eight centuries of Muslim rule in both Spain and Portugal. Al-Andalus was the Arabic name given to the parts of Spain governed by Islamic leaders at various times during the period spanning from 712 until 1492. Nowhere else has there been more intense, prolonged and largely peaceful contact between the Christian and Muslim worlds than at that point in Spain’s history. This extended period of cultural contact resulted in deep-rooted linguistic ties between the Spanish and Arabic languages.

Spanish exhibits a lexical influence from Arabic. In other words, Arabic mostly contributed to the Spanish language in terms of new vocabulary as opposed to pronunciation or grammar. Second only to Latin, Arabic has made a significant contribution to the Spanish language, with scholars estimating nearly 4,000 Arabic loanwords, or nearly 8% of the Spanish lexicon.

Approximately 60% of the Spanish words derived from Arabic are nouns. Many Arabic loanwords include the prefixed definite article “al,” therefore, a great deal of these words begin with the letter ‘a.’ Words related to science, mathematics, architecture, geography, crafts, industry, commerce, agriculture, public administration, the military, trade and household goods are most common.

A host of simple, everyday words like taza (from tasa meaning “cup”), hasta (from hatta meaning “until”), cero (from sifr meaning “zero”), and azúcar (from sukkar meaning “sugar”) can all claim Arabic roots. For an expanded list of Arabic loanwords in Spanish, click here.

When Spaniards express approval and encouragement by shouting ¡olé!” at a bullfighter or flamenco dancer, they echo the Arabic expression “wallah” meaning “[I promise] by God.”

There are also numerous place names derived from Arabic, particularly in southern Spain where Muslim rule was most influential. Jaén (from Jayyan meaning “Crossroads of Caravans”), Madrid (from al-Magrīt meaning “Source of Water”), La Mancha (from la’a Ma-anxa meaning “No Water”), and Guadalajara (from Wādī al-ijārah) meaning “River or Valley of Stones”) are all of Arabic origin.

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1 Response to “The Influence of Arabic on the Spanish Language”

  • I find it ironic in some ways that I stumbled upon this blog post, as I am currently taking a summer course so I can learn how to speak Spanish fluently. A few weeks ago, I even asked my professor the cultural origins of Spanish and she could not give me much of any information. That infuriated me, because I see the cultural aspects and the origin story of language to be more important than simply being able to speak the language itself. Also, it makes it easier to care about learning if I feel more connected with the culture. Very interesting article here, and I’m sure many people could learn from it as I did!

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