In order to understand the Arab influence on Spanish, let's start understanding each side individually. Spanish is the second most spoken language in the world: it is the official language of 22 countries spread throughout Europe, America and Africa, including Spain, Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Venezuela and Peru. And, surprisingly, by 2050, most of its native speakers will live in the United States.
Arabic is the liturgical language of 1.6 billion and the official language in 28 countries, mostly in the Middle East and northern Africa: United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Djibouti, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Morocco.
So what do these two languages, apparently so far removed from one another, have in common?
Spanish meets Arabic
After the fall of the Roman Empire in the Iberian Peninsula, vulgar Latin transformed into Castilian in the region that is now the northern part of Spain - starting the Arab influence on Spanish.
Around the same time, the Moors invaded the south of the peninsula, established cities and maintained their dominance as late as the 15th century. This kingdom was known as Al-Andalus. And while Arabic was made the official language, lower classes spoke mostly a hybrid between the existing Latin and the new imposed Arabic: Mozarabic.
The Arabic presence had a huge impact on this region - it changed everything, from mathematics to the cuisine. And many of the words used to name these new products and practices made their way into modern Spanish. In fact, even some cities, regions and rivers in southern Spain can trace their names to this era: Andalucía, Guadalajara, Alhambra, Albacete, Almería, Badajoz, Guadalquivir.
So, if you speak Arabic, you may in fact already know 8% of all Spanish words. Give it a try!
Arab influence on numbers and science
By the 8th century, Arab countries had a deep scientific knowledge, which they brought into the west. Perhaps their most lasting influence is felt on mathematics: the Arabic numerical system, from 0 to 9, is the one we still use today. Previously, all of Europe used Latin numbers.
In addition, the Arab influence was felt in advances on water storage systems, construction techniques, agricultural and piscatory practices. This influence is noted on words like algebra, algoritmo [algorithm], alquimia [alchemy], almadraba [a fence to catch tuna], cero [zero], cifra [numeral] and ajedrez [chess].
Rice, fruits and spices: the culinary arts
With crops brought from Africa and the Middle East, the Arab influence was also felt in the cuisine. Almost all the names for these new crops, fruits and spices were adopted by Spanish. Here’s a short list: albahaca [basil], albaricoque [apricot], albóndiga [meatball], azafrán [saffron], alcachofa [artichoke], arroz [rice], azúcar [sugar], café [coffee], fideo [noodles for soup], jarabe [syrup], sandía [watermelon], zanahoria [carrot] and all the citrus fruits, lima [lime], lemón [lemon], naranja [orange] and toronja [grapefruit].
Persian carpets arrive in Spain
The Arab world is well-known for its marvelous textiles. And, of course, they brought this millennial art into Al-Andalus. Alfombra [carpet], algodón [cotton] and almohada [pillow] all have their origins in Arabic.
Arab influence on Spanish music
Flamenco is one of the most traditional artforms in Spain and no one is saying otherwise. The sound of the Spanish guitars, the dance moves and the rhythm of the handclapping make it very special and unique. But música [music], guitarra [guitar] and tambor [drums] all came from Arabic. Coincidence?
Last, but not least
It’s not ay, caramba, but close. ¡Olé! is one of the most popular interjections between Hispanophones. And that’s why you might be surprised to learn that its origin lies in the Arabic word Allah. It’s in good company though: ¡ojalá! [I hope; God willing] is another common Spanish word with the same Arabic root.
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