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Arabic’s Influence on Spanish

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Spanish History

Unlike English, Spanish has a bunch of similar languages that are still in use today. Learning Spanish can be a great gateway to learning other languages like French, Portuguese, or Italian because all of these languages come from Latin. But did you know that you might also be learning some words that are similar to words in Arabic? In fact, about 8% of Spanish words have their origins in Arabic, which makes a lot of cognates!

The History of Islamic Spain

Spanish and Arabic have an interesting shared history. We’ll start our story at the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century CE. At this time, the Iberian peninsula largely fell under the control of the Visigoths, who had been residing in the southwestern part of what is now France as a semi-autonomous kingdom within the Roman Empire. The Visigoths became the upper class in the Iberian peninsula, while the Latin-speaking people of the former Roman Empire continued to live in the peninsula as the common class. The Visigoths spoke both Latin and their own Germanic language, but the Germanic language was not commonly used among people outside of the ruling class, so the Iberian peninsula was mostly Latin-speaking at this time.

Towards the beginning of the 8th century CE, the ruling class of Visigoths had started to fracture, which weakened their ability to protect the peninsula from invaders. This turned out to be a bad time to weaken since the Umayyad Caliphate, which ruled most of Northern Africa and the Middle East, was looking to expand its empire. They had just suffered a defeat at Constantinople in the west and decided instead to focus their attention on expanding their empire eastward into the Iberian peninsula. In 711 CE, the Umayyad Caliphate launched an invasion of the peninsula that lasted a little over ten years and resulted in the capture of the majority of the Iberian peninsula as well as the collapse of the Visigothic Kingdom.

The end result of the Umayyad invasion was that the majority of the peninsula fell under Muslim control, except for a small population of independent Christian kingdoms in the north. These kingdoms would eventually form the Kingdoms of Asturias, León, Navarre, Castile, and Aragón. Over the next 7 centuries, there were various battles between these Christian kingdoms and the Caliphate during a period called the Reconquista.

Borrowing Arabic Words

While it may seem obvious that the Umayyad rule in the Iberian peninsula would directly influence Spanish, this actually wasn’t the case because the people living in Islamic Spain, called al-Andalus, were generally bilingual and spoke both Arabic and Latin.

It was, in fact, in the northern Christian kingdoms that Spanish began to take shape through a language called Castilian. The proximity of the Castilian-speaking Christian kingdoms to the Arabic-speaking Umayyad Caliphate did result in words being borrowed from Arabic into Castilian.

For instance, the Castilian-speaking people adopted parts of Muslim civil life, which led to the adoption of words like Alcalde (mayor), aldea (village), and almacén (warehouse or department store). Similarly, there was a lot of trade between the two, leading to words for commerce like alquiler (to rent), ahorrar (to save), and tarifa (tariff or tax).

Likewise, the Castilian-speaking people took on new words for foods and crops that were popular in al-Andalus. It’s from this that we get aceituna (olive), arroz (rice), and aceite (oil).

Another major avenue that words entered Spanish, and other languages like English, from Arabic was the Arabic’s world scientific advances. Throughout the Middle Ages, the Arabic-speaking world was incredibly advanced, and therefore words for their scientific and mathematical discoveries entered different languages. This is where both English and Spanish got words like algebra and alcohol.

Most Arabic loanwords in Spanish are nouns, often beginning with “al-,” the Arabic definite article equivalent to the Spanish el or la. It’s unclear why Castilian-speaking people included the definite article when they brought the words over from Arabic into Spanish. Perhaps they thought it was an integral part of the word.

Lastly, some of these words exist alongside Castilian words. In the example above, aceituna and oliva both refer to olives, and they’re both commonly used in Spain.

Lost Arabic Words

What’s equally as interesting as the words of Arabic origin that Spanish still uses are the words that it used to use, but no longer does. For example, Spanish used to use alfageme instead of barbero (meaning barber in English); albétar instead of veterenario (meaning veterinarian in English); and alarife instead of arquitecto (meaning architect in English).

It’s thought that the loss of these words corresponds to the decline in the influence of the Arabic-speaking world during the late Middle Ages and the simultaneous rise of Europe. Arabic terms, once associated with sophistication and scientific progress, gradually left the vocabulary as Europe emerged as a new center of cultural and intellectual influence.

In conclusion, the Arabic influence on Spanish highlights a unique historical convergence, showcasing how language evolves through cultural and political exchanges. Understanding these influences not only enriches our appreciation of Spanish but also connects us to a broader linguistic heritage.