Jan - Mar 2002, Spain

Spanish’s Arab Connection

Language of the Moors is Major Contributor to Vocabulary

If you speak either Spanish or English, you probably speak more Arabic than you think you do. It’s not “real” Arabic you’re speaking, but rather words that come Arabic. After Latin and English, Arabic is probably the biggest contributor of words to the Spanish language, and a large portion of English-Spanish cognates (words that the two language share) that don’t come from Latin come from Arabic.

The English words you’re most likely to think of as Arabic origin are those that start with “al-,” words such as “algebra,” “Allah,” “alkali” and “alchemy,” and they exist in Spanish as álgebra, Alá, álkali and alkimia, respectively. But they are far from the only ones. A variety of other types of common words such as “coffee,” “zero” and “sugar” (café, cero and azúcar in Spanish) also come from Arabic.

The etymology of English words goes beyond the scope of this article, but the introduction of Arabic words into Spanish began in earnest in the eighth century, although even before then some words of Latin and Greek origin had roots in Arabic. People living in what is now Spain spoke Latin at one time, of course, but over the centuries Spanish and other Romance languages such as French and Italian gradually differentiated themselves. The Latin dialect that eventually became Spanish was highly influenced by the invasion of the Arabic-speaking Moors in 711. For many centuries, Latin/Spanish and Arabic existed side by side, and even today many Spanish place names retain Arabic roots. It wasn’t until late in the 15th century that the Moors were expelled, and by then literally thousands of Arabic words had become part of Spanish.

Following are some of the most common Arabic-origin Spanish words you’ll come across. As you can see, many of the words also are a part of English. Although it is believed that the English words “alfalfa” and “alcove,” which originally were Arabic, entered English by way of Spanish (alfalfa and alcoba), most Arabic words in English probably entered English by other routes. Not all possible English translations of the Spanish words are listed.

aceite – oil
adobe – adobe
aduana – customs (as at a border)
ajedrez – chess
Alá – Allah
alacrán – scorpion
albacora – albacore
albahaca – basil
alcade – mayor
alcoba – bedroom, alcove
alcohol – alcohol
aldea – village (same source as English word “alderman”)
alfombra – carpet
algarroba – carob
algodón – cotton
algoritmo – algorithm
alkimia – alchemy
almacén – storage
almanaque – almanac
almirante – admiral
almohada – pillow
alquiler – rent
amalgama – amalgam
arroz – rice
asesino – assassin
atún – tuna
ayatolá – ayatollah
azafrán – saffron
azúcar – sugar
azul – blue (same source as English “azure”)
baño – bathroom
barrio – district
berenjena – eggplant
burca – burqa
café – coffee
cero – zero
chisme – gossip, gadget
Corán – Koran
cuzcuz – couscous
dado – die (singular of “dice”)
embarazada – pregnant
espinaca – spinach
fez – fez
fulano – what’s-his-name
gacela – gazelle
guitarra – guitar
hachís – hashish
harén – harem
hasta – until
imán – imam
islam – Islam
jaque – check (in chess)
jaque mate – checkmate
jirafa – giraffe
laca – lacquer
lila – lilac
lima – lime
limón – lemon
macabro – macabre
marfil – marble
masacre – massacre
masaje – massage
máscara – mask
mazapán – marzipan
mezquita – mosque
momia – mummy
mono – monkey
muslim – muslim
naranja – orange
ojalá – I hope, God willing
olé – bravo
paraíso – paradise
ramadán – Ramadan
rehén – hostage
rincón – corner, nook
sorbete – sherbet
sofá – sofa
rubio – blond
talco – talc
tamarindo – tamarind
tarea – task
tarifa – tariff
toronja – grapefruit
zanahoria – carrot

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