written to the song: Can’t We Be Friends? — Ella Fitzgerald&Louis Armstrong

“Caminante, no hay puentes, se hace puentes al andar.” ― Gloria E. Anzaldúa

Playa Del Carmen, 2011.

A lot can be learned about a culture when studying a language. For example, the Spanish word sobremesa means ‘the time spent lingering and chatting after a meal’, a word that simply does not exist in the English language. From this word it is apparent that Latinos hold a cultural value of appreciating the value of a meal and good conversation with good company. Something that I didn’t know before my “Romance Philology” class was the influence of Arab culture on the Spanish lexicon.

Buenos Aires, Argentina.

By the year 720 Spain was fully controlled by the Moors (the Muslims) who renamed the Iberian Peninsula, “Al-Andalus” (also referred to as Islamic Iberia or Muslim Spain). Most Muslim invaders were bilingual, speaking Arabic and their native Berber, and were known as “moros latinados”. At this time, the North-East was controlled by the Franks, the Spanish March, and the Kingdom of Asturias which resisted Arab control. Throughout the Arab rule of Iberian Spain, Arabic became the lingua franca. A new power presents new concepts, different foods, and terminology for day-to-day activities. The term Arabism is defined by the contact of Arabic languages on Romance languages forming an Arabic-Romance Bilingualism. Many Arabisms which have been transferred to the Spanish lexicon are linked to major Islamic values, such as the importance of the home, education, religion, food and cooking, and common expressions. Furthermore, the Arabs introduced innovations such as the ideas of commerce and agriculture and therefore passed on the Arabic terminology. Most transferred Arabisms are nouns. Moreover, Arabisms are seen not only in Spanish, but in Romance languages such as Catalan, Portuguese, and Italian, which share 54 Arabisms (Entwistle, 1936). Romance languages are grouped together as they are historically related to Latin and therefore possess Latin derivations.

Santiago, Chile.

The Arabic influence on the Spanish lexicon reveals new terminology for concepts and infrastructure that the Moorish people introduced to Islamic Iberia. Moreover, these words reveal the importance of the home and potentially. Evidence for this theory is seen when analysing the words almohada ‘pillow’, alfombra ‘rug’ and adobe ‘mud-brick structure’, which are a few examples of the Arabic influence within the home. The Arab leadership found the need to classify communities, and introduced names for: arrabal ‘suburb’ from Arabic al-rabad, and aldea/aldeia ‘village’ from Arabic aduar. The Moorish influence created new terminology needed for commerce, where many people were creating, buying and selling in Al-Andalus. The carat was used to measure the preciousness of a stone or gold. “Carat” was represented by Spanish quilate stemming from Arabic qîrât. An increase in commerce created an influx in tradesmen: carpenters (albañil from Arabic al-bannî), potters (alfarero from Arabic al-faχχâr), and tailor (alfayate from Arabic al-χayyât).

Varadero, Cuba. 2013.

As previously stated, Arabisms in Spanish were often used to describe an object not known on the Iberian Peninsula. Though, there were other instances where there existed both an Arabic term and a Hispano-Romance term. Why was one preferred over another? In the case where the speaker favoured the Arabic term, or was conversing with someone of the Arab community, they tended to select the Arabic term over the pre-existing Hispano-Romance term. For example, oil was not popular in Christian Spain, though became popularized during the Arab rule of the Iberian Peninsula. French huile and Italian olio stem from Latin oleum ‘oil’. In Spanish, olio existed stemming from Latin, though in modern Spanish aceite is the commonly used term. It is evident that this term does not stem from Latin, alternatively it stems from the Arabic word az-ziete. Perhaps the speakers of the time learned cooking techniques from the Moors. Moreover, many Moors were involved in trade and the people of the time most likely adopted this word while purchasing oil, or simply the people of the time didn’t have access or interest to use oil. This is a prime example of “diglossia”, how more than one language exists in a community and different terms are often used in different communities (Dworkin, 2011).

A marker of Arabic influence on the Spanish language is the prefix al-. This prefix is placed in front of locations (ex: Al-Andalus) and nouns (ex: algodón ‘cotton’ in Spanish). Particularly in nouns, al- translates as the definite article “the”, where the prefixation signifies a definite noun.

Barcelona, 2015.

Some Arabisms are altered to fit society’s linguistic needs. For example, similar to the creation of the word chairwoman in English (as not all individuals leading a committee are male), the Spanish Arabism azafata ‘royal female servant’ was created to describe a “flight attendant”. Both these situations demonstrate how a society influences language change, as new realities in society influence semantic changes.

The Arabs were officially defeated and expelled by Castille in 1492. At the end of the 15th century, out of 300,000 Moors, 275,000 were forced to leave the Iberian Peninsula. Castille became the dominant power and therefore Castillian Spanish became the standard national language (Cohen, 2012).

Dominicana Republica

Language reveals information about a culture, the referent, and society. There is a bidirectional influence between language and a society, where society shapes language and language shapes society. Through language and historical documents it is clear that the Moors successfully conquered and influenced most of the Iberian Peninsula for centuries. Romance languages are intertwined through Latin origins, and Spanish is unique due to its Arabic influence. The aim of this article was to exemplify the Arabic influence on the Spanish lexicon, from words to describe food, commerce, and tradition, as well as verbs, adjectives, and phrases. Arabic influenced word-final stress and the creation of Arabic-Romance hybrids. Through studying the history, it is evident that certain modernizations in society lead to the modernization of Arabisms, meaning that even today linguists and speakers of Spanish are not saying “hasta la vista” to the Arabic influence on Spanish.


Cohen, Yehuda. The Spanish Shadows of Embarrassment. Toronto: Sussex Academics Press, 2012. Print.

Dworkin, Steven. A History of the Spanish Lexicon. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Print.

Entwistle, William J. The Spanish Language. London: Faber & Faber Limited, 1936. Print.

Author of “Q & A a Day for Travelers”. https://www.linkedin.com/in/anna-frenkel/

Author of “Q & A a Day for Travelers”. https://www.linkedin.com/in/anna-frenkel/