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Arabic influence on Spanish

To make it across the Straits of Gibraltar from North Africa is once thing, but then over the Pyrenees, through what can only be described as France and then across the English Channel, that's some journey. On another occasion we might take a look at the plight of refugees who undertake this perilous voyage, but for now, we are dealing with words...

In your Spanish studies how often do you come across a new word and think “Whoa! Where did that come from?!” If it is completely unfamiliar, dissimilar to anything you’ve ever seen in any other European language, the chances are it belongs to the sizable list of words whose provenance is Arabic.

The Arabic-speaking Moors ruled Spain, or at least had a strong foot-hold, for seven hundred years, so it is hardly surprising that a lot of words were borrowed by the Spanish language. Is ‘borrow’ not a euphemism, by the way? These words are not going to be given back! Some of them made it into other European languages, but a good few of them stayed on the peninsula, giving us learners of Spanish a bit of a jaqueca. Check the list below for how many of the words begin with ‘al’ and how many are to do with money, maths or science – or food. And how many are now recognisable as English words.

Side note: I once conducted an interview for a PE teacher. The best candidate, a blond Swedish woman, confidently told me that she could also teach Arabic. “Fantastic,” I said, highly impressed and rather surprised. “We have a lot of children from Middle-Eastern families in this school, maybe you could run a club…”

A blank look.

“I’m sorry, I thought you said you could teach Arabic.”

“No, aerobics.”

This made rather more sense.

1. aceite (m.) oil

2. aceituna olive

3. aduana customs, customs house

4. ajedrez (m.) chess

5. Alá (m.) Allah (God)

6. alacena cupboard, closet

7. alacrán (m.) scorpion

8. albahaca basil

9. albaricoque (m.) apricot

10. albóndiga meatball

11. alcalde mayor

12. alcancía coin bank

13. alcaparra caper

14. alcachofa artichoke, shower head

15. alcoba bedroom

16. alcohol (m.) alcohol

17. Alcorán (m.) Qur’an (Koran)

18. aldea village

19. alfalfa alfalfa

20. alfiler (m.) pin

21. alfombra carpet

22. algodón (m.) cotton

23. algoritmo algorithm

24. alguacil sheriff

25. almacén (m.) store, warehouse, grocery

26. almanaque (m.) almanac

27. almíbar (m.) syrup

28. almirante admiral

29. almohada pillow, cushion

30. alquiler (m.) rent

31. arrecife (m.) reef

32. arroz (m.) rice

33. atalaya watchtower (f.), guard (m.)

34. ataúd (m.) coffin, casket

35. atún (m.) tuna

36. ayatolá (m.) ayatollah

37. azafrán (m.) saffron

38. azar (m.) al azar = at random

39. azote (m.) whip

40. azotea (f.) rooftop

41. azúcar (m. or f.) sugar

42. barrio neighbourhood

43. berenjena aubergine

44. café (m.) coffee

45. califa (m.) caliph

46. cero zero

47. cifra numeral, figure, sum

48. cimitarra scimitar

49. cuzcuz (m.) couscous

50. dado die (pl. dice)

51. dinar (m.) dinar

52. fulano so-and-so

53. guitarra guitar

54. harén (m.) harem

55. hasta until (prep.), even (adv.)

56. hazaña feat

57. imán (m.) imam

58. Islam (m.) Islam

59. jabalí (m.) wild boar

60. jaque (m.) check (in chess)

61. jaqueca migraine

62. jarabe (m.) syrup

63. jinete (m.) horseman

64. jirafa giraffe

65. lima lime

66. limón (m.) lemon

67. máscara mask

68. mezquita mosque

69. momia mummy

70. mono, a monkey, ape

71. naranja orange

72. nenúfar (m.) waterlily

73. ¡Ojalá! I hope! God willing!

74. rehén hostage

75. rincón (m.) corner

76. sandía watermelon

77. sorbete (m.) sherbet

78. talco talc

79. tamarindo tamarind

80. tambor (m.) drum

81. tarea task, assignment

82. tarifa tariff, rate

83. taza cup

84. toronja grapefruit

85. trujamán interpreter or translator

86. zanahoria carrot

Andrew Wenger has been fascinated by languages - how to speak them and where they came from - for as long as he can remember. If you share this fascination and would like to join a language group, please make contact here. You can learn French, German, Spanish, Japanese, English as a foreign language, or other languages upon request. You can join us at any level: beginner, intermediate or advanced. ¡Ojalá!

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