How Many Spanish Words are Arabic?

Numbers vary, but most etymologists agree that Spanish is suffused with about a thousand Arabic roots and 4000 words or more of Arabic origin. Perhaps “ojala” is the most obvious, but such common words as “hasta” and “usted” derive from Arabic.

The Backstory: Moors Got the Last Word

A romantic rendition of the dramatic events of the late 15th century that culminated in the fall of the last Muslim King of Iberia claims that a young Emir Muhammad XII, upon leaving his beloved Granada, released such a resounding and meloncholic sigh that his mother, who was accompanying him, began to weep. It may have been “the moor’s last sigh”, however, it wasn’t the last word on the subject. Indeed, Muhammad XII, better known as Boabdil to Westerners, was the last ruler of a Muslim kingdom in Spain. Although anyone who has visited Andalusia in southern Spain can attest to the influence of the Arabs and Berbers had on Spanish culture, many people underestimate the extent to which nearly 800 years of Muslim rule had on the Spanish language. 

Numbers vary, but most etymologists agree that Spanish is suffused with about a thousand Arabic roots and 4000 words or more of Arabic origin. Perhaps “ojala” is the most obvious, but such common words as “hasta” and “usted” derive from Arabic. Moreover, virtually every word that begins with the letters “al” originated with an Arabic version. Of course, Latin has had the most significant impact on Spanish, though Arabic is second. A closer inspection of the Arabic-Spanish lexicon highlights an impressive “Islamic or Moorish” civilization that flourished for centuries on the Iberian peninsula. 

The Splendor of Cordoba

Algebra, alchemy, ajedrez (there are amazing paintings from the 12th century showing Muslims, Jews, and Christians playing chess), alfombra, guitarra, cifra and so on are words that reflect a level of sophistication well beyond any place in Europe during the Middle Ages. Much has been written about the splendor of Cordoba at around the year 1000. In fact, it was the largest city in the world at that time! Scholars, merchants, and holy men of various faiths mingled and enjoyed the over 70 libraries at their disposal. Although inter-faith harmony suffered at certain times during the Muslim’s 800 year run, Al-Andalus was a beacon of tolerance and cultural diffusion. Learning and the arts in Islamic Spain foreshadowed and directly influenced the Italian Renaissance. However, by the High Middle Ages, the zeal of the Reconquista had reached a pinnacle, and the alliance of Castille and Aragon proved too much for Muslim Granada. What a consequential year 1492 was!

Lesson Idea: Grab a Guitar

Etymology is not boring, despite popular opinion to the contrary. When history and language teachers utilize the connections between history and word origins, words take on additional meaning. Arabic and Muslim influence on Spanish culture provide a wealth of opportunities for teachers to engage students in meaningful and interesting lessons. So the next time you are searching for ideas for a lesson, just grab a guitar, indulge your students with some aceitunas and albaricoques, and settle down on an alfombra and set up an ajedrez tournament all the while knowing you might as well be in Al-Andalus. 

Examples of Arabic Influence on Spanish

Aceituna

Arabic: zaytūnah

English: Olive

Albahaca 

Arabic: habaqah

English:  Basil

Barrio

Arabic: barrī 

English:  Neighborhood

Bellota

Arabic: ballūṭa

English:  Acorn

Dado

Arabic: a‘dād

English:  Dice

Elixir

Arabic: al’iksīr

English:  Elixir

Gandul

Arabic: ḡundar

English:  Slacker

Guitarra

Arabic: qīṯārah

English:  Guitar

Jirafa

Arabic: zurāfah

English:  Giraffe 

Limón

Arabic: laymūn

English:  Lemon

Mazmorra

Arabic: maṭmūrah

English:  Dungeon

Naranja

Arabic: nāranǧ

Hispanic Arabic: naranǧa

English:  Orange

Ojalá

Arabic: law šá lláh

English:  I hope/Maybe

Rehén

Arabic: rihān

English: Hostage 

Rincón

Arabic: rukn

English: Corner

Sandía

Arabic: sindiyyah

English: Watermelon

Talco

Arabic: talq

English: Powder

Tarima

Arabic: ṭārimah

English: Pallet

Tambor

Arabic: ṭabbūl

English: Drum

Toronja

Arabic: turunǧah

English: Grapefruit

Zaguan

Arabic: usṭuwān[ah]

English: Hallway

Zanahoria

Arabic: safunnárya

English: Carrot