Spanish language still influenced by Islamic culture till today
Spain is closely connected to the Islamic world. Not only does Spain enjoy good diplomatic relations with a big number of Islamic countries, but it also has the intrinsic presence of Islamic culture at the Iberian Peninsula for nearly eight centuries — from the time of Al-Ándalus.
Al-Ándalus, also called “Moorish Iberia,” could be described as the nation and region ruled by Muslims from the beginning of the caliphate of Córdoba in 711 until the fall of Granada in 1492. However, the territory changed constantly during this period, as did the way of governance. Al-Ándalus reached its maximum expansion in the tenth century, when it covered three quarters of the Iberian Peninsula.
After the fall of Granada, Spanish rulers tried to wipe out the marks of Moorish Iberia. For many centuries, Spain had an ambivalent attitude toward the long presence of Moors on their territory. Some scholars, on the one hand, emphasized the superiority of Al-Ándalus over other European cultures in that time. Intellectually, the peninsula flourished under the governance of the Arabs, who introduced Islamic philosophy, mathematics and architecture as well as Greek knowledge, such as philosophy, medicine and astrology. These scholars often used this as an argument that Spain was different from other European countries.
On the other hand, the Arabs practiced a different religion, the country was organized in another way, and their culture differed significantly from the Spanish one. As a result, many scholars viewed the eight-century long Moorish presence on the Iberian Peninsula as an interruption in the development of a Hispanic culture.
Whether Al-Ándalus constitutes a continuation or a break of Spanish culture and history, the long presence of Muslims indisputably left a legacy on the peninsula — most visibly in the Spanish language.
Spanish is a Romance language; it emerged from Vulgar Latin dialects in the north of the peninsula. Previously, Latin had already been influenced by several native Iberian languages such as Celtiberian and Basque. However, it got its most important external influence from Al-Ándalus in the Middle Ages.
Although classical Arabic was the official language on the Islamic territory, there were also two vernacular languages: An Arabic dialect mixed with Latin and Romance words, also called Andalusi Arabic and mainly spoken by the Muslim population, and a Vulgar Romance dialect, spoken by the Mozarabs or Christian inhabitants on the Islamic territory.
As the Christian kings conquered land from Muslim rulers and with the collapse of the Islamic empire on the Iberian Peninsula, Arabic words impacted the Spanish language spoken in the northern Kingdom of Castile, which became the dominant dialect in the newly united country of Spain.
The Arabic influence on the Spanish language is mostly lexical. This means that it is mainly visible in the vocabulary of the Spanish language, rather than in its grammar or syntax (the arrangement of words and phrases to create sentences). It is estimated that there are over 4,000 Arabic loanwords and over 1,000 Arabic roots. Together, they make up around eight percent of the Spanish vocabulary.
As Al-Ándalus was in many ways a more advanced society than most other European cultures, Spanish words derived from the Arabic language are mainly found in fields that were introduced to the peninsula by Arabs.
One example is the judiciary, which was based on Islamic law. Words like “asesino” (assassin), “rehén” (hostage or captive), and “tarifa” (tariff) all entered the Spanish language through Arabic. Other important fields consist of words related to administration and business. The Spanish word “alcalde” (mayor) comes from the Arabic word “al-qadi (judge); the word “alguacil” (sheriff) comes from “al-wazir” (minister). Other examples are “almacén” (deposit, store), “almoneda” (auction), and “quilate” (karat).
There are several other fields that contain borrowed words from Arabic: Food names, such as “aceite” (oil) and “arroz” (rice); astronomical and mathematical terms, such as cenit (cenith) and “cero” (zero); and technical words from several professions, such as “alfarero” (potter), “albañil” (mason) and “alberca” (reservoir).
Most of these loanwords start with “a” or “al.” This comes from the Arabic definite article “al.” In fact, most Spanish words starting with “al” are of Arabic origin.
There are a few cases of Arabic influence on the Spanish language that are not related to its vocabulary. The most known is the expression “ojalá,” which means “hopefully” and comes from the Arabic “Inshallah.” The word is still often used throughout Spain and Latin America.
The other influence is the letter “í” at the end of certain words, indicating that someone is from a certain place. The adjective “Andalusí,” for instance, is used for someone from Andalusia; a “Marbellí” is a person from Marbella. This is the same as in Arabic, where a “Saudi” belongs to the country of Saudi Arabia.
The impact of the Islamic empire comprises more than language. Important scholars, such as Ibn Tufail, Ibn Bajjah and Ibn Rushd — the two latter also known in the West as Avempace and Averroes respectively — introduced and developed physics, political science, philosophy, jurisprudence, medicine, architecture, psychology, music, poetry and literature.
The remains of Moorish Iberia are still visible today, not only in Andalusia, but also in the rest of the country. The most famous are probably the Giralda — a minaret turned into church tower — in Sevilla, the Great Mosque of Córdoba, and of course the Alhambra palace in Granada. You are welcome to explore them yourself!