Illustration by Louise Mézel.
The Spanish language you know and love is full of surprises: It’s a Romance language — just like French, Portuguese, Italian and Romanian — meaning it descended from Vulgar Latin; it has the second highest number of native speakers in the world at 480 million hispanohablantes; it’s even the official language of 20 countries and Puerto Rico, and spoken in parts of Morocco, Gibraltar, Andorra and the Philippines. Perhaps the biggest surprise of all, however, is that Spanish has been significantly influenced by Arabic.
According to philologist Rafael Lapesa, a Spanish historian and former director of the Spanish Royal Academy, about 4,000 words of modern Spanish come from Arabic. “The Arabic element was, after Latin, the most important in Spanish vocabulary until the 16th century,” he argued in the book Historia de la lengua española. So how did this happen and what does it mean for Spanish today?
Why Did Arabic Have Such A Strong Influence On Spanish?
Unsurprising for any history buffs, the Arabic influence on the Spanish language began with the Moorish occupation of the Iberian Peninsula in 711. In that year, Muslim forces arrived and in a period of only seven years gained control of nearly all the peninsula, overthrowing the Visigothic Kingdom that had ruled over the region for about three centuries.
With this, Spain and many aspects of its culture were Islamized: it was named Al-Andalus and Arabic became the official language. The nearly 800 years of occupation were marked largely by multiculturalism, especially in terms of religious coexistence between Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Because of this, Al-Andalus is considered by academics to have been a bilingual society until at least the 11th or 12th century.
It should be noted, however, that the language of the Iberian people at the time was not Castilian Spanish (the Spanish we know today wouldn’t appear until around the 13th century). Instead, the local people spoke a series of dialects called Mozarabic, which were dialects closely related to Romance languages today. The name Mozarabic actually comes from the Arabic name of the Christian people in Al-Andalus, مستعرب (musta’rab), meaning “Arabized.”
Mozarabic And Modern Spanish
Unfortunately, there’s not much else that we know about Mozarabic. More detailed information on these dialects is difficult to obtain due to a lack of historical documentation: Because Arabic was the official language of the region, most works were written in Arabic and not Mozarabic. What little information we do have comes from remaining Hispanic-Arabic dictionaries, a few botanical glossaries, and some fragments of literature.
Meanwhile, the dialect that would become modern Spanish made its way to the areas of Madrid and Toledo in the 11th century. Here it mixed with Mozarabic, where both dialects likely both experienced a lot of leveling (meaning that they assimilate and become less distinct). Unfortunately, this leveling meant that the Mozarabic dialects all but disappeared after the Christian reconquest in 1492.
At the end of the 15th century, with the merging of the kingdoms of Castile and Leon with those of Aragon, Castilian Spanish became the official language of Spain. And even if Mozarabic died out (or was swallowed up by Castilian), Spain still maintains other regional languages, such as Galician and Catalan.
Arabisms In Spanish
So where is the Arabic influence on Spanish the most obvious? For one, food and agriculture. The Moors revolutionized Spain’s agricultural system by developing new techniques for soil leveling and preparation, irrigation, pest elimination and grain storage. They also introduced new crops to the Iberian Peninsula, including sugar cane, cotton, rice, chickpeas, lettuce, saffron, melon, cucumber, oranges, lemon, chard and artichoke. (You’d be hard-pressed to imagine your favorite paella dish without these core ingredients.)
This influence on agriculture is reflected in current Spanish vocabulary: azafrán (saffron), azahar (orange blossom), azucenas (lilies), algodón (cotton), alerce (larch), ajorca (anklet), aljibe (cistern), alberca (water tank), albaricoque (apricot), limón (lemon), acelga (chard) and alcachofas (artichokes) are all of Arabic origin. Additionally, the classic Arabic word sukkar and the Hispanic-Arabic assúkkar gave birth to azúcar (sugar).
Because of the history of the occupation, several other contexts also possess Arabisms — words relating to the military: aljaba (quiver), aceifas (harvests), atalaya (watchtower), zaga (rear) and alcazabas (citadels); and scientific terminology: algoritmo (algorithm), álcali (alkali), álgebra (algebra), cifra (cipher) and alquimia (alchemy).
Another common Arabism is the fusion of al with nouns in Spanish, such as almohada, alhelí and albarán. In Arabic, al is a definite article (like the English “the”). As with English, there is only one form of this article and therefore it doesn’t possess masculine or feminine variants.
Larger Cultural Impact
The fact is that the Moorish occupation didn’t just leave a linguistic mark on Spain, but rather a larger cultural heritage. After agriculture, their style of architecture changed much of the way we perceive Spanish aesthetics.
The Moors built palaces, mosques, minarets and fortresses that are easily among the most imaginative and unique in Europe. In Toledo, for example, the Cristo de la Luz is the only remaining mosque out of the 10 that were built during the occupation. Today the structure is used as a church, but the building used to be known as the Bab-al-Mardum Mosque. Another highlight of Arab architecture in Spain is the magnificent Alhambra: a palace-city (with seven inner palaces) and a fortress, with two kilometers of ramparts and 23 towers.