26 Apr 2009

Arab influence in the languages of the Iberian Peninsula

While writing the previous post I called my mom up to confirm the date of the Moorish invasion of Spain (711), preferring human contact to the dryness of cyberspace. :p Apparently it resulted in her doing a bit of web-browsing and she just e-mailed me the link to a very interesting article on the influence of the Moorish invasion on the development of the Romance languages in the Peninsula, as well as the incorporation of certain arab terms to Spanish languages.

If you're at all interested in history (particularly that of Spain), or linguistics (particularly Spanish) then I recommend you go check it out at the Cervantes Virtual Library (in Spanish / Castilian):

La invasión árabe. Los árabes y el elemento árabe en español

In brief, it mentions how the Spanish Romance languages (i.e. Castilian, Catalan...) developped in regions that were soon reconquered after the invasion (the north: Asturian mountains and the Pyrenees) while in Islamic Spain (the Kingdom of Al-Andalus) arab was spoken in parallel to a Mozárabe dialect which has since been lost. Arabic is so different to Latin languages that there was no real fusion of the two to create a unique Spanish Latin-Arab tongue, but the traces of the arab presence can be found in many words (and the names of many towns and regions such as Alicante).

For example, many spanish words starting with al are actually a fusion of the arabic al -which is an article- to the Latin root word: almeja (ar. al- + lat. mitulu the mussel).
Also a result of arab influence was the changing of meaning of certain latin terms to reflect the equivalent in arabic. The much used (in the Middle Ages and Renaissance) term hidalgo which denotes the person to be honorable, of noble lineage, comes from fidalgo, hijodalgo and finally hijo (son) which corresponds the arab term ibn meaning "son of" or "related to" (kind of like "Mac" or "Mc" do in Ireland and Scotland).
Then there are the words (~4000) that were directly imported into Spanish (and from there to other languages) from Arabic, covering all fields of human activity such as:
* Science: algorítmo, cifra, álgebra, alcohol, elixir...
* Institutions: alcalde, alguacil...
* Commercial activities: tarifa, aduana, almoneda, zoco...
* Construction: aldea, alcoba, albañil, alfombra...
* Domestic / Recreation: ajedrez, tare, taza, alfiler, almíbar...
* Agriculture (the arabs were truly innovative in this field, particularly in irrigation systems): acequia, aljibe...
* Plants: alcachofa, algodón, alfalfa, azafrán, azúcar, aceite...
* Mineral products: azufre...
* War (due to the continuous battles with the Christians): alcazar (castle-fortress), tambor, alférez, barbacana...
I'm sure you've recognised more than a few of these in the English language as well! (sugar, safron, sulfur, barbican, alcohol, algebra...)

After that it mentions mainly pronunciation which I won't go into. So much for being "brief"! Hope it was at least mildly interesting! ;o) To decorate I've chosen some photos I took during my last trip to Granada (I think I've only been about... 5 times?), in the Alhambra, one of the treasures of Arab architecture and my favourite place in Spain!.


  1. Now I want to research that era...

  2. I've always been interested in languages and the relationships between them, imported words from one language to another etc. So when I read things like this it makes me want to research more into the matter as well! lol! and gets me to wondering whether or not to go for another degree someday... in languages/linguistics/litterature/history... subjects I find VERY interesting (but I know you can't live off of!)

  3. Hi,

    I've found an interesting article titled "los falsos amigos en el lexicon espaniol de origen arabe."


    Enjoy reading!

  4. Hi Cris!
    Having lived in Spain for three years way back in the 80's,,I find this very interesting. Of course,before finalizing a transfer of duty stations, we always did our research.
    I fell in love with the region(Andalucia)! Rota was our home, but we traveled as much as possible to soak up and immerse ourselves in the once in a lifetime experience.. ah the memories..i cried all the way back to the states when we departed..does that say how attached i'd become? yep!!
    warmest hugs..

  5. Loui, you lived in Spain in the '80s? Were you here for the madness that must have been the World Cup in '82? ;o)

    I've heard about the Rota base, gets mentioned in the news occasionally.

    I understand how you felt going back to the States... we got so attached to each of our postings that we never wanted to get sent back to the States! :s


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