Arabic Contributions to the Spanish Language and Culture

From the desert they came – men filled with religious zeal and riding under banners inscribed with the motto “There is no god but God and Muhammad is His messenger”.  After establishing the Middle East and North Africa as the foundation of their new Arab/Islamic Empire, the Arabs in the 8th century landed on the Iberian Peninsula where they planted their religion and language. In the ensuing years, they were to greatly influence the history and way of life in that part of Europe.

These Arabs and their Qur’an were not the usual conquerors.  The cultures of the countries they occupied were not destroyed, as had been the fate of civilizations overwhelmed by other victorious armies, but preserved.  Later these cultures were absorbed and enriched to form the Arab-Islamic civilization, which was to be mankind’s pathfinder for many centuries.  Subsequently, their learning was to be passed through the Iberian Peninsula to the remainder of Europe.  However, it was to be in Spain where the Arabs stayed for some 800 years that they left their greatest impact.

Their language, Arabic, was one of the most important vehicles which carried this culture of the East to the Europe of the Dark Ages.  In the deserts of Arabia, before the Islamic conquest, this Semitic tongue had developed over millennia into a descriptive flowing language of poetry, creating an enormous vocabulary.  For any object to be found in their barren and inhospitable land, the Arabs had a wide spectrum of words.  A poet had no trouble in rhyming his verses for he had a large storehouse of synonyms from which to draw.  Thus Arabic became unmatched as a language of prose and poetry.

The Arabs were proud of their language and believed it had no equal among the tongues of mankind.  As befitting a proud people, they spent much effort trying to keep their basic language pure.  Even after the Islamic conquests when foreign influences began to stealthily move in, scholars tried to stem this tide.  Omar S. Pound in his book Arabic and Persian Poems in English writes:

The Arab prides himself on using the mot juste and in ancient times many an Arab scholar is reported to have travelled great distances to find out the exact meaning of a rare word used by an obscure Bedouin tribe.  Often we read of guests from far-off lands being closely cross-examined on the use and meaning of a particular word found only in the guest’s tribe.

After Islam moved out of its Arabian homeland, Arabic was the language which carried its message.  Every converted Muslim wanted to learn the tongue of these desert men for it was believed that Arabic was the mother of all tongues first taught to Adam in Paradise. Anwar Chejne in his work The Arabic Language: Its Role in History, writes that an Arab author, Ibn Manzur (14th century), in the introduction of his Lisan, asserts that God created the Arabic tongue superior to all other languages, and enhanced it further by revealing the Qur’an through it and by making it the language of Paradise. Ibn Manzur further relates a tradition of the Prophet Muhammad who said, “They [people] loved the Arabs for three reasons: I am an Arab; the Qur’an is Arabic; and the language of Paradise is Arabic.”

But this pride of language did not stop the Arabs from enhancing their tongue after the conquests.  From the newly conquered peoples Arabic borrowed a whole range of scientific and technical words and terms.  These enriched the desert tongue with its many synonyms to produce a world language par excellence.

In the eighth century Arabic emerged as a full-fledged language of empire and an instrument of thought which was to last long after medieval times.  Perhaps there is no language in the world today that has survived for over 1,400 years in its original form as has Arabic – moulded in that century of greatness.

From the eighth to the twelfth centuries, Arabic became the scientific language of mankind.  During this period anyone who desired to advance in the world and become a skilled and learned man had to study Arabic.  Just as in our day English opens the door to technical and scientific advancement for ambitious men, so it was with Arabic in that medieval period.

During these centuries more works were produced in Arabic than in all the languages of the world at that time.  One of the 60 libraries in Cordoba alone had 600,000 volumes of handwritten manuscripts; this at a time when Europe was in the middle of the Dark Ages, and washing the body was considered a dangerous custom.

By the time the Arabs were masters of Spain, Arabic was well on its way to becoming the scientific language of mankind.  In the almost illiterate world of the newly occupied land, the rich Arabic tongue must have appeared as today English appears to a modern, educated sub-Saharan African who had been familiar only with a tribal dialect.

In the pre-Islamic Iberian Peninsula, colloquial or vulgar types of Latin had been the languages of the land since Roman times.  However, when the Germanic Visigoths conquered Spain three hundred years before the Muslim occupation they contributed somewhat to these spoken dialects, but not in an overwhelming sense.

The most important legacy they left in modern Spanish are some 200 words relating to dress and warfare, and a few place-names, found here and there in both Spain and Portugal.  During this period when these Germanic conquerors ruled, the few who were educated, mostly to be found amongst the clergy, used classical Latin and, to a lesser extent, Greek as the languages of communication and literature.

Shortly after the Arabs conquered Spain in the early eighth century, Arabic became the principal language of both the centre and south of the Iberian Peninsula while in the Christian north, Latin with its dialects held sway.  This was to continue until the thirteenth century when the Arabs began to be pushed out of their heartland in Andalusia.

In the parts of the Iberian Peninsula under Arab occupation, the spoken vulgar Latin, the direct ancestor of modern Spanish, working side by side with Arabic, evolved into many idioms. Known as the Romance languages, they consisted of four principal dialects: Mozarabic, spoken by the Christians who lived under Muslim rule and which became the principal medium for passing Arabic words into Spanish; Aragonese, spoken in the lands of Aragon and Navarre; Leonese, the tongue of the kingdom of Leon which was heavily influenced by Arabic words; and Castilian, destined to become the national language of Spain.

These dialects and others, such as Catalan and Provencal, played their part in the evolution of modern Spanish, but Castilian, developed in the heartland of Spain, was to be its main base.  As the Spanish re-conquest, led, in the main, by Castile, moved relentlessly forward century after century, Castilian was implanted in the conquered territories.  With the spread of this dialect, Castilian and Spanish became synonymous.  Today, to speak Castilian is to speak the purest of Spanish.

In the Muslim regions of Spain, the use of Arabic quickly spread. By the tenth century, elementary education was commonplace throughout Arab Spain. With the exception of the very poor, all boys and girls attended school. Unlike the Christian parts of Spain and the countries of northern Europe, the vast majority of people in the Arab controlled areas were literate.  Arabic, the language of this literate population, reached dazzling heights.  In less than a century, even the Christians living under Muslim rule became so proficient in Arabic that they neglected their own tongues.

  1. Dozy in Spanish Islam explains how the Christians were captivated by the glamour of Arabic literature and that men of taste despised Latin authors, and wrote only in the language of their conquerors.  He cites Alvaro de Córdoba, a contemporary writer of the 9th century, who deplores this fact with these words:

‘My fellow-Christians,’ he says, ‘delight in the poems and romances of the Arabs; they study the works of Mohammedan theologians and philosophers, not in order to refute them, but to acquire a correct and elegant Arabic style.  Where today can a layman be found who reads the Latin Commentaries on Holy Scriptures?  Who is there that studies the Gospels, the Prophets, the Apostles?  Alas! The young Christians who are most conspicuous for their talents have no knowledge of any literature or language save the Arabic; they read and study with avidity Arabian books; they amass whole libraries of them at a vast cost, and they everywhere sing the praises of Arabian lore.  On the other hand, at the mention of Christian books they disdainfully protest that such works are unworthy of their notice.  The pity of it! Christians have forgotten their own tongue, and scarce one in a thousand can be found able to compose in fair Latin a letter to a friend!  But when it comes to writing Arabic, how many there are who can express themselves in that language with the greatest elegance, and even compose verses which surpass in formal correctness those of the Arabs themselves!’


The fact that the non-Muslim inhabitants preferred Arabic to their own language made it inevitable that the impact of Arabic on Spanish would be tremendous.  Arabic words began to move into Spanish dialects, especially in the scientific and technical fields. This borrowing did not enter the Spanish and later European languages only by chance or due to an enchantment with the Arabic tongue, but as a result of European Christians trying to emulate Arabic culture which represented scholasticism in almost every discipline, including the arts. Year after year the borrowing of these words gathered momentum until the Reconquista stemmed the tide.

From the tenth century onwards, Arabic words and terms entered the Romance dialects in the Iberian Peninsula on a massive scale.  This rich vocabulary of Arabic words was a great stimulant in the evolution of European thought.  When, in Toledo, after its re-conquest by the Christians, Arabic works were translated into the European languages, Christian thinking was revolutionized and Europe was put on the path to advancement.

There is no doubt that many Arabic words entered numerous European languages after these translations. Even though many Western historians have, through the centuries, been reluctant to admit this great role the Arabs had in the evolution of Christian Europe, Arabic words in European languages are the evidence of this tremendous contribution.

Even when the Spaniards attempted after the Re-conquest to cleanse Arabic words from their language, today there are perhaps 8,000 words and some 2,300 place-names of Arab origin.  It will surprise many to know that after Latin, Arabic has made the greatest contribution to the Spanish tongue.

Besides Spanish, Arabic contributed to the vocabularies of all the European idioms and saturated many of the languages in the Muslim countries, e.g. 57% Pushto, 42% in Urdu, and 30% of Persian are made up of Arabic words and terms.

However, of all the languages in the world outside the Muslim lands, it is Spanish, which includes the greatest number of Arabic borrowing.  In this language’s vocabulary Arabic words are to be found under every letter of the alphabet.  In addition to thousands of others, an examination of a Spanish etymological dictionary will reveal that a vast number of words beginning with al are of Arabic origin.  Many, although not common in the everyday tongue, are still used to some extent. Perhaps there is no better way to appreciate the great impact Arabic has had on Spanish than to visit the Spain of today.

Travelling across the country, one finds Arabic place-names everywhere:  Albacete is derived from the Arabic (al-basit – the plain); Albufera (al-buhayrah the small lake); Alcalá (a1-qa1cahthe fort); Alcantara (al-qantarahthe bridge); Almería (al-mirayahthe mirror); Alpujarras (a1-bashurahthe bastion or the news); Benicasim (Bani  Qasimthe sons of Qasim) ; Calatayud (qal cat  Ayyubthe fort of Ayyub [Job]); CalataÁazor (qal cat  al-nasurthe fort of eagles); Guadalajara (wadi  a1-hhijarah valley or river of stone); Guadalcazar (wadi  al-qasrvalley or river of the castle); Guadalquivir (wadi  a1-kabirgreat river); Guadalviar (wadi  al-abyadwhite river); Madrid (majri a type of breeze); Medinaceli (madinat Sa limthe city of Salim); Murcia (misriyahEgyptian); Tarifa (Tarif name of the first Muslim to land in Spain); Vega  (buq cah –  field); and Valladolid (balad al-­Walid the town of Walid).

Besides these few samples of the hundreds of place-names derived from Arabic,  the Spanish landscape is dotted with many others which are only partly derived from Arabic such as Guadalupe from the Arabic wadi  and Latin lupis (valley of the wolf) or Zahara de los  Membrillos (Arabic zahra’  and Spanish  de los membrillos – flower of the quinces).

Although the Arabic place-names are an important aspect of the Arab impact on Spain, Arabic words in Spanish indicate the many other areas in which Arabic has influenced the Spanish way of life.  To fully realize the extent of this influence, let us relate an imaginary journey made to Andalusia (Arabic al-Andalusa corruption of ‘the Vandals’, a Germanic tribe which, before the Arab conquest, had occupied the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa).

After our plane landed in an Andalusian city, we bade adieu to our azafata (air hostess, from the Arabic (al-saffat the tray)When we shook her hand, we noted how her beauty was enhanced by a gold alfiler (broach – khilal) and a necklace of aljófares (pearls – al-jawhar)As we walked away she smiled saying:  “Hasta la vista!”  (Until we meet again!,  from the Arabic  hatta’  ‘until’  and the Spanish la vista)We answered: “Ojalá!”  (If God Wills! – Insha’  Allah!), then hurried away.

In a few moments we were at the aduana (customs – al-diwan)Noting we were tourists, the aduanero (customs officer) asked us if we needed a turjimán (interpreter – turjuman), but being familiar with Spanish, we declined.  Quickly we passed through customs, then rented an auto and departed for the home of our host.

We passed through colourful zocos (markets suq) where we noticed alfareros (potters – al-fakhkhar) plying their trade.  Our route took us by the alcaldía (mayor’s office) in front of which we saw the alcalde (mayoral-qadi), his alguacil (constable al-wazi r), an albacea  (executor of a will – al-wasiyah) and a magistrate formerly known as the zalmedina (lord of the citysahib al-madinah) going for a stroll. Continuing onward, we passed by offices of an alarife (architect – al- carif), an albéitare (veterinarian – al-baytr), an alcaiceria (formerly the name of a silk market – al-qaysariyah), a hóndiga (grain exchange – al-funduq), an almacene (department store – al-makhazin), and a fonda (inn – funduqah) before entering a barrio (suburb – barri).  We soon lost our way and stopped at an almoneda (auction sale – al-munadin) to ask directions.

Entering the front office, we saw an alamín (clerk who checks weights al-ami n) hanging a tarifa (price list – ta crifah) on the wall.  Standing beside him was an almojarife (tax collector – al-mushrif ) talking to an almotacén (market inspector – al-muhtasib) and the chief inspector of weights and measures, formerly known as zabazoque (lord of the marketsahib al-suq) who ensures that no one is a zarracatin (profiteer – saqit)We asked for directions and the inspector informed us that our friends lived in a wealthy arrabal (suburb – al-rabad). However, before we parted he gave us a short history of auction sales in Andalusia in which he informed us that, in the past, the weights and measures used were: almud (al-mudd), arrelde (al-ratl), arroba (al-rub cah), azumbres (al-thumn), cantara (qantarah), celemi (thumni), fanega (faniqah) and quintal (qintar)all terms derived from Arabic.

Before returning to our auto, we strolled in the surrounding streets filled with outdoor cafés (cafe qahwah).  As we passed, patrons would invite us to join them with “Venga Usted a comer!”  (Come, join us!), a habit they have kept from the Arabs.  In the same fashion throughout the Arab world cafe patrons will invite passersby with tafaddalu! (Welcome! or Please, oin us!).

A few minutes’ drive brought us to the Moorish-type home of our host, a residence with an enclosed garden-courtyard with a fountain – a style inherited from the Arabs and found in all the Spanish-speaking countries.   Noting the home had no number, I asked a fulano (chap – fulan) passing by, who appeared to be trafalmejas (empty headed – atraf al-nas), if the house was our host’s home   He smiled and nodded his head.

After striking the aldaba (door knocker – al-dabbah), our host appeared and greeted us saying:  “Enter!  We are delighted to see you, esta es su casa (this is your house) – a translation of the Arabic phrase hadha baytukum.

We entered through into the courtyard with its alberca (artificial pool – al-birkah) surrounded by azucenas (white lilies – al-susan) which covered some atanores (pipe – al-tannur)Nearby was an antique almarraja (sprinkling bottle for watering plants – al-mirashshah) and a redoma  (flask – rudumah)The courtyard with its alfeizar (flared opening – al-fashah) and ajimez (arched – al-shams) windows, colourful azulejo (tileal-zulayj) walls and fine baldosa (paving tile – balat) floor, charmed us.  As we walked around surveying the scene, we noted that part of the house was made of adobe (sun-dried mud brickal-tub) and an albaÁil (mason – al-banna’) was on the azotea (roof – al-suayhah) repairing the chimney.

In the attractive setting of the courtyard, we were greeted by the whole family before our host took us for a tour of his home.  We walked through halls and rooms filled with rich alcatifas (tapestries – al-qatifah) and arambeles (wall hangings – al-hanbal) and floors covered with colourful alfombras (carpets – al-khamrah).  As we moved to the upper stories, we observed attractive alcobas (alcoves – al-qubbah) covered with an aÁ il (violet-blue – al-nil) jaharro (plaster – hawarh).  In the zaquizami (attic – saqf shami )  our host proudly pointed out to us an alacena (cupboard – al-khazanah) in which there was an alcancia  (money-box – al-kanziyah) containing old coins of maravidí (pertaining to Almoravid Dynastymurabit) and meticales (an old Arab currencymithql).

Back in the sitting room with its taracea (inlaid – taraza) chairs and tabiques (thin walls – tashbib), we rested our weary bodies on sofas (low couchesal-suffah) strewn with almohades (cushionsal-mikhaddah)An anafre (a small stove – al-furn) took the chill out of the air while our host served us alm§íbar (a quince drink – al-maybah), limón (lemon – laymun) and naranja  (orange – naranj) drinks accompanied by dishes of sweets containing arrope (boiled down fruit juiceal-rubb) and jarabe (sharab – drink) syrups; along with small bowls of pistachios (al-fustaq), escabeches (pickles – al-sakbaj), and raw  zanahorias (carrots – isfariniyah).  We savoured these appetizers for an hour as we waited in anticipation for the coming meal.

The repast began with gazpacho – a soup inherited from the Moors and believed to be derived from the Arabic – khubz mushrib – soaked bread).  This was followed by: alboronía (al-buraniyah) a berenjena (eggplant – badhinjan) vegetable stew with side dishes of tasty alcachofa (artichoke – al-khurshuf), alubia (kidney-beans – al-lubiya), chirivía (parsnip – jiriwi ya) and espinaca (spinach – isbanakh).  Next we were served albóndiga (meatballs – al-bunduq) flavoured with alcaravea (caraway – al-karawya), almoradux (marjoram – al-murdaqush), azafrán (saffron – al-za cfaran), estragón (tarragon – al-tarkhn) and zamaque (sumach – summaq); steaming arroz (rice – al-ruzz) cooked in aceite (oil – al-zayt) which was stored in alcuzas (olive oil cans – al-kuzah), boiled almejas (clams – al-majjah) with fried atún (tuna – al-tun) and sábalo (shad –  shabil).  

Following the main course, our hostess brought out alajú (a honey sweet – al-hashu) and almojábana (cheese cake – al-mujabbanah) accompanied by tazas (cups – tasah) of café (coffee – qahwah) sweetened with azúcar (sugar – al-sukkar).  After everyone was sated, fresh albaricoques (apricots – al-barquq), sandías (melons – sindi), toronjas (grapefruit – turunj) and zafaris (sweet figs or pomegranates – safar§) with a jarra (earthen jar – jarrah) of iced water, were offered as a final touch.  Truly our hostess had taken her tarea (task – tarihah) seriously.

When we had finished, the ama (mistress of the house – umm) arose, picked up a piece of bread which had fallen on the floor and in the Arab fashion said: “Es pan de Dios” (God’s bread – caysh Allah) before taking the women to show them her alcoba (bedroom – al-qubbah). As they entered, the guests noted that the room was full of objects and had a strong smell of algalia (civit oil – al-ghaliyah) and almizcle (musk – al-misk). On a table, near the jofaina (washbasin – jufaynah), were some ataujiadas (damascene – al-tawshiyah) brooches, an ajorca (anklet – al-sharkah) along with numerous other alhajas (jewels – al-hajah), and an albanega (hair net – al-baniqah).

The bedspread was made from fustal (coarse cloth – Fustt [the old name for Cairo]) material and the bed’s headboard was covered with guadamecil (embossed leather – Ghadamasi [from the city of Ghadamas, Libya])   Edging the bed, hanging on the walls and in the nearby closet, were all types of clothing. which included: an albornoz (bathing robe – al-burnus), an almalafa (woman’s robe – al-malafah) made from aducar (coarse cloth – al-dukar), an azul (blue – al­- lazaward), an almejía (short coat – al-mahshiyah), some camisas (shirts – qamis) made from algod6n (cotton – al-qutn), a chupa (dress) and a  jubón (men’s jacket) – both deriving from the Arabic jubbah, a marlota (outer skirt – mullatah or mallutah) made from aceituni (al-zaytunah) velvet fabric and a number of  zaragüelles (breeches – sirwil).  

On the floor of the closet were a pair of alcorques (overshoes – al-qurq), a carmesi (crimson – qirmizi) almofrej (travelling bag for bedding – al­mafrash), babuchas (slippers – babuj) and alpargatas (hemp sandals – al-barghat).  

Impressed with the many ancient types of clothing, the women were upbeat when they returned to join us.  After we chatted for a few minutes, our host informed us that he had prepared a traditional Andalusian zahora (party – sahrah) for our pleasure.  In a few moments the musicians were playing their aldufe (tambourine – al-duff), aÁ afil (trumpet – al-nafir), laúd (lute – al- cud), quitarra (guitar – qitarah), and tambor (drum – tanbur)As the evening progressed we took an azar (chance – al-zahr) and drank the homemade alquermes (alcoholic drinks – al-qirmiz).  

Into this atmosphere of music and drink a flamenco troop (fallah manjah – derived from the Arabic “saved farmer”) entertained us with their dances and cante jondo – a type of singing of Arab origin.  Soon we were shouting olé!  (bravo – wa-­Allah) as the dancers increased their speed before the finale.  It was indeed a zahora to remember.

The next morning our host took us in his van for an outing through the countryside.   Leaving the city, we crossed fields of alcandia (sorghum – al-qatniyah), alcaucí (wild artichokes – al-qabil), alfalfa (alfalfal – al-fasfasah), and algarroba (carob – al-kharrub)Driving through these fields along a river we passed an aceÁa (watermill – al-saniyah), acequias (irrigation ditches – al-saqiyah), alcantarillas (small bridges – al-qantarah), an aljibe (cistern – al-jubb), an almazara (oil mill – al-ma csarah), almenara (channels for surplus water – al-manhar), an atarjea (small drain – tarhiyah), an azud (waterwheel: al-sudd), norias (irrigation wheels – al-na curah) with their ancient arcaduzes (buckets – al-qadas).

Turning at a zubia (small channel – shu cbah), we left the river road; then crossed an almunia (farm – al-munyah) full of azahares (orange and lemon blossoms – al-zahr); then stopped to talk to an arriero (multeteer – harr [an expression used by the Arabs to urge camels onward]) leading a mule which was carrying atramuz (lupine beans – al-turmu s) in its alforias (saddle bags – al-khurj).

Not far from the field of azahares we passed an aduar (gypsy camp – adwar); then interrupted our journey to stop at an alquería (farmhouse – al-­qaryah) to visit a rabadan (head shepherd – rabb al-da cn). He greeted us with warmness – in the same fashion as his Arab ancestors.  As we talked I could hear in the nearby josa (unfenced garden – hushshah) zorzales (thrushes – zurzur) singing while in the distance we glimpsed his zagales (young shepherds – zughlul) attending their rehala (flocks of sheep of different owners – rahalah).  Seemingly enhancing the chirping of the birds, we could hear the mournful tunes of the abogues (flutes – al-buq) being played by the zagales.

Our host, holding an argolla (iron ring for sheep – al-ghull) in one hand and alicates (pliers: al-laqqat) in the other, apparently wanted to begin work. However, still retaining the hospitality of the Arabs, he took us into his home and offered us, from a zaque (wineskin – zaqq), an alcoholic (al-kuhl) drink which he had distilled in his alambique (alembic – al-­inbiq) and alqitara (still – al-qattarah)We declined his kind offer and bade him adieu.  Undaunted, he urged us to stay, repeating a half dozen times “Ya sabe que ha tomado posesión de su casa” (Please know that you have taken possession of this homeal-­bayt baytak a pure Arab saying).

After leaving the rabadan’s home, we passed through a landscape saturated with álcalí (alkali – al-qili); then drove by a ruined Arab alcázar (castle – al-qasr) before we reached a shining white aldea (village – al-day cah).  As we made our way through its narrow streets, we noted that there were many jayáns (husky persons – hayyan) who seemed to be gandul (loafing – ghandur)Near an arsenal (dar al-sina cah) at the end of town, we turned on an arrecife (stone paved road – al-rasif) through a field of daza (panic grass – duqsah) to begin on our return journey.

On the way back, we discussed with our host the Arabic contributions to the Spanish language.  We talked about many of these loan-words but lingered when we came to álgebra (algebra – al-jabr), almanaque (calendar – al-manakh), alquimia (alchemy – al-kimiya, cifra (zero – sifr), elixir (elixir – al-iksir), guarismo (cipherKhuwarizmi) and ojiva (pointed arch – al- cawj) all Arabic words which came into Spanish and, in one form or another, entered various other European tongues.

We were so absorbed with our conversation that we did not notice it had become dark.   Soon the stars aldebarán (al-dabbaran), algabar (al-jabbar), algol (al-ghul), betelgeuse (bayt al-jawza’) and mizar (mi’zar) shone brightly.  Driving in the cool evening under these and unnumbered other stars carrying Arabic names, we discussed the words auge (apogee – cawj), cenit or acimut (zenith – al-samt) and nadir (nadir – nazir) – terms relating to the heavens, derived from Arabic.

The miles slipped by quickly.  In no time we were resting in our host’s home and were being served wine from a garrafa (carafe – gharafa).  It was a restful interlude before we were taken by our host to a Spanish movie.  We were all excited for the film we were to see related to one of the many Moorish-Spanish wars.

After a short walk we entered the cinema, built in mudéjar (Spanish Muslims living under Christian rule – mudajjan) style.  Soon, we were watching the Moors in their alcazaha (fortress: al-qasabah).  The alcaide (commander – al­-qa’ id) was waiting to alarde (display – al-card) his soldiers who were fully armed with adargas (leather shields – al-daraqah), alfanjes (scimitars – al-khanjar) and azagayas (light spears – al-zaghayah).  His alférez (lieutenant – al-faris) in the atalaya (watchtower – tatalla a) had informed him that the Spanish navy with its many zabras (frigates – zawraq) and led by a well-known almirante (admiral – al-amir) was preparing a rebato (unexpected attack – ribat) to conquer their city.

The alcaide planned his strategy well.  He appointed an adalid (leader – al-dalil) to pick a company of the best soldiers and conceal them in the surrounding mountains to await the Spanish attack   When he had deployed his men, he was to assemble a few almogávares (raiders – al-mughawir) from the Mozarabes (Christians living under Muslim rule – musta crab) who formed the zaga (rear – saqah) of his force. He would then have them advance toward the enemy, creating an algarada (uproar – al-gharah) before they retreated back into the castle. When the Spaniards surrounded the castle with their algaras (raiding cavalry – al-gharah) and foot soldiers, the adalid’s force was to attack them from the rear while the castle defenders, hidden in adarves (paths behind the parapets – al-darb) would rain down arrows.   All went according to plan and the Moors won the day.  The film ended with a messenger standing in front of the califa (caliph: khalifah) in Cordoba proudly announcing: Albricias! (Good news! – al-bisharah).               

The following morning before we bade our host farewell, we visited his sick sister in a nearby hospital.  To reach her room we had to pass alferecía (epilepsy – al-f~ lij§ yah) and zaratán (breast cancer – saratan) wards.  As we went by, our host greeted many of the sick with the translated Arabic phrase Dios le ayude (May God help you – Allah ya ctik). Many replied with:  Vaya por Dios (It’s God’s Will – Hadha  iradat Allah). When we reached his sister’s room we found that she was ready to leave.  Her doctor had found that she had only a zaqueca (headache – shaqiqah).               

As we parted in front of the hospital our generous host asked us to visit him again.  We all replied:  Si Dios quiere! (If God Wills – a translation of Insha’ Allah!). With this Spanish saying of Arabic origin we ended our imaginary journey to Andalusia.

The vocabulary employed in our journey of fantasy gives one an idea of the immense contribution made by Arabic to Spanish.  There are hundreds of other Arabic words which have enriched the idiom of this former Arab land.  Although some of these words are to some extent obsolete and have various modern synonyms, others have become entrenched in the language and are irreplaceable.

The long lexicon of words Arabic has contributed to Spanish includes, in addition to nouns, adjectives such as: bald§ o (untilled – batuli), garrido (elegant – ghari), horro (free – hurr), jarifo (showy – sharif), mezquino (wretched – miskin), rahez (low or vile – rakhi) and zahareÁo (wild – sahra’)Also, verbs such as: acicalar (to adorn – al-siqal), aleve (perfidious – al- cayb), halagar (flatter – jalaqa) and recamar (embroider – raqama).

Further, Spanish has numerous non-Arabic words which carry an Arabic meaning.  These few examples will give an idea of this type of lingo. Aceros, which means both energy and strength, is a translation of the Arabic hiddah (sharpness and force); poridad which means both purity and friendship, from khalasa (to be pure); and vergüenza which means both shame and honour has the same meaning as the Arabic car.

These and other Arabisms indicate how the translated meaning of Arabic words have become an integral part of the Spanish language.  However, they form only a small portion of the Arab inheritance.  The Arabic words themselves in Spanish are the true measure of the Arabic contribution.  In all areas of human existence these words give us an idea of the immense impact the Arabs had on Spain and through Spain to the rest of Europe.  The Arabic idioms in architecture, agriculture, art, astronomy, commerce, geography, industry (including armament, fabrics, glassmaking, leatherwork, papermaking, silk-making, etc.), literature, mathematics, mechanics, medicine, music and physics, clearly outline these contributions.

There is no question that the Arab impact on Spain made it the leading country in Europe for many centuries.  When Europe was living in the age of ignorance, Spain was a cornerstone of knowledge.  Many Muslim and Western writers have written in glowing terms attesting to this fact.  Perhaps this cannot be summed up better than in the words of Gustave Lebon, an independent French thinker, who said, “If Musà bn. Nusayr had been able to conquer Europe, he would have made it Muslim and would have saved it from the darkness of the Middle Ages which, thanks to the Arabs, Spain did not know.”

Arabic Contributions to the Spanish Language and Culture

by Habeeb Salloum

For more information, please contact Al-Hewar via e-mail at

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