Arabic Influence in Spanish Language


Spanish-dictionaryWe all know that that most of Southern Spain formed part of the Arab Al-Andalus empire between 711 and their final defeat and evacuation in 1492 but are you aware how much of our daily language, customs and infrastructure we still owe to them? In our everyday Spanish, we use hundreds of actual Arab words and dozens based on them. In total the Real Academia lists 5000 Spanish words of Arabic origin.

Let’s start with names be they places or things. We all know at least one Mohammed, Fatima, Zoraima or Yasmina-and not all of them Arabic! All our local rivers bear Arabic names with the prefix Guad. The Guadiarro, the Guadilamina, Guadarranque, Guadalhorce to name but a few. This is directly from the Arabic word waddi; remember this word from school? It means a dry or seasonal river bed or sand form. Perhaps even then water shortages were the norm in summer!

The word ‘aldea’ for small village is Arabic and lots of village names are very Arabic, particularly around the villages in the Sierra which were well and truly occupied, and still look and feel very Arabic today Think of Alcala de Los Gazules near Jerez and all the small white villages in the mountains around Ronda; Bennarabia, Algatocin, Atajate etc. Algeciras obviously has an Arab name which definitely suits its population today!

All the place names which end in de La Frontera are also part of our Arab legacy, Jimena de La Frontera, Castellar de La Frontera, Jerez de La Frontera and the wonderfully named Moron de La Frontera.These towns formed the final defence line as the Moors left, hence the “La Frontera” part. In fact in Vejer, near Tarifa, until recently women still wore an Arabic type face-covering garment when attending church.

Food is another great borrower of names and in Spanish we have acquired aceite(oil), arroz(rice), espinaca(spinach), naranja(orange), café(coffee) and zanahoria (carrot) from the Arabic. In fact most Spanish words beginning with ‘z’ are Arab based-zambomba, zalea, zanja, zapato-the list is endless.

Almost all words beginning with ‘al’ are also directly derived from Arabic and the most famous of which is undoubtedly alcohol from al-kuhl. Others include alembic, a type of still used in sherry production, alkali, alcoba, an alcove, alfombra, a carpet, almohada, a pillow and alcalde, the mayor-of course.

As the Arabs came as invaders a lot of military, government and legal terms passed into Spanish. Alcázar and alcála meaning fortress and castle are two examples. We have rehén for hostage and tarifa for fee but the most interesting one must be ‘assassin’ for murderer; a word used in English too. This came directly from a band of murdering thugs who used hashish to enslave new recruits by getting them hooked on it then withdrawing it unless they murdered on command (actually I thought dope wasn’t supposed to be addictive!) The sect was called the Hashshasin.

The Arabs were great mathematicians and scientists so we have words like cero, zero, cifra, cipher, álgebra, and cénit, zenith. Finally their horsemanship was second to none so a lot of horsey-type words are of Arabic origin such as jacquima (hackamore).


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