La Razia: Arabic’s Influence on Spanish

Long after the last sultan departed, the Alhambra Palace looms over Granada.

Spanish is not a particularly well-known language in Europe, but even people who do not know a word beyond hola are aware of one unique feature. Much of Spain was under Arab Islamic rule for centuries, and this epoch left an indelible legacy in the Spanish language. In the context of the modern crises of Muslim immigration and religious division, this history is important: a supposed halcyon era of cultural exchange back in the Middle Ages provides an example for Europe today.

This all seems plausible enough. Arabic held sway in the Iberian Peninsula for nigh on eight centuries, longer than Spanish has been in the Americas. The cities of Córdoba and Granada are replete with magnificent Islamic architecture. Given such an extensive history of political domination and cultural contact, one would expect a profound linguistic impact. After all, the Vikings and Normans, who laid into England over the same period as the Arabs were in Spain, fundamentally transformed English.

But reality is more complex. The history of Arabic in Spain begins in 711, when a disgruntled courtier named Count Julian, furious with the king for seducing his daughter, invited the North African general Tariq ibn Ziyad to overthrow him. Tariq obliged. Spain buckled under the Islamic onslaught; within months the Visigothic kingdom that had ruled the country since the fall of Rome had collapsed, its finest put to the sword or scattered to the winds. The last remnants of Christian Spain shivered in the mountains of the north; as Islam swept invincibly across the known world, there was little hope for them.

Spain (including Portugal: before the modern era, Portugal and its language were no more separate than the kingdoms of Aragon, León, etc.) was a deeply Roman place. It had been part of the empire since the 3rd Century B.C. It was known for its bountiful fields and rich mines, and was the home of great emperors like Trajan, Hadrian, and Theodosius (not to mention Maximus Decimus Meridius). The Visigoths had conquered the province in the 5th Century A.D., and the budding Spanish dialect of Vulgar Latin absorbed a few words reflecting a turbulent early history, among them guerra (war), guardia (guard), and atacar (attack). But ultimately Spain’s Roman culture, language, and religion conquered the Visigoths: by the eve of the Islamic conquest, almost everyone spoke Latin.

A Roman aqueduct in southern Spain. Roman roads were so good that Spanish kings did not really bother to build new ones until well into the modern era. The Via Augusta formed a part of the country’s highway system until it was paved over in the 1920s.

Still, Spain might have become an Arab Muslim country. Few remember today that the Middle East and North Africa were once core provinces of the Roman world, far more so than Gaul or Britain. For a time, Córdoba was one of Islam’s great metropolises, the seat of a caliphate founded by a young prince who fled there after escaping in a carpet from the banquet where a treacherous rival clan butchered his family. Arabic was the predominant language of al-Andalus (Islamic Spain; the name refers to the Vandals), at least in the cities.

The first level of linguistic influence is the borrowing of words. This happens easily and naturally: day-to-day English includes words from at least a dozen other languages I can think of, many gleaned from simple commercial or cultural contact. But political and cultural domination can result in more extensive borrowing, with swaths of the subject language’s vocabulary supplanted by the hegemon’s.

For centuries, Arabic was the language of power, wealth, and learning; Spanish was that of infidel peasants.

This is the case of Spanish with Arabic. Many Arabic words in Spanish are clear legacies of subjugation: these include alcalde (mayor), alguacil (from the Arabic al-wazir, a minister or official; today means sheriff), alquiler (rent), and barrio, which in Arabic referred to a heathen slum, but to Spaniards means neighbourhood. Others refer to the trappings of refined life, for example alfombra (carpet) and almohada (pillow; the Almohads were a major Moroccan dynasty, so compare this to the English word “ottoman”). Still more are names for cash crops like algodón (cotton), and azucar (sugar; like much else, this came via Arabic from India), or foods like naranja (orange), aceituna (olive), and sandía (watermelon). The former three have come into English, having dropped the characteristic al- prefix. My favourite is ojalá, god willing- it is a popular expression, and it always amuses me to hear my Catholic grandmother invoke Allah.

This is indeed a hefty haul. But take a step back, and it is less impressive than it seems at first blush. Approximately 8% of Spanish words come from Arabic, and many of them are archaic. This is similar to the share of Latin words in German, and a small fraction of the one-third or more of English words that come from French.

What is more, vocabulary is the most superficial level of linguistic influence. To again use English as an example, the Norse invasions that began at around the same time the Arabs hit Spain transformed English’s grammar, wiping out the complex system of gender and cases that pervaded Old English. By contrast, Arabic left virtually no grammatical legacy in Spanish. Some pop etymologists claim that the definite article el comes from the Arabic al, but all linguists agree that this is bunk (it is from the Vulgar Latin demonstrative ille, cf. Italian il and Catalan el). The Spanish linguist Rafael Lapesa has hypothesised that Spanish and Portuguese are more likely than other Romance languages to use verb-subject-object word order, as opposed to the typical subject-verb-object, which would tie back to Arabic. This is an interesting idea, but it is far from accepted fact.

The shrinking caliphate; it is worth noting that by the 12th Century (bottom left), al-Andalus was divided into dozens of petty emirates. If you are curious, I believe the maps are in Swedish.
The Islamic State want to make Spain Islamic again.

There are two major reasons for this. The first is that the Muslims never actually controlled all of Spain. Even at its greatest extent, al-Andalus did not penetrate the Pyrenees and the mountains of Asturias. No sooner were they routed than the tenacious Christians launched a centuries-long Reconquista that slowly rolled back the Islamic frontier. The cradle of the Castilian dialect, i.e. standard Spanish, was in the northern city of Burgos, beyond the emirs’ reach. Although the last stronghold of Granada did not fall until 1492, most of the Iberian Peninsula had been reconquered by 1248. And when Granada did fall, there was not a Christian to be found there.

The second reason is that al-Andalus was basically an apartheid state. Notwithstanding a few historic strivers, Christians, who spoke Latin/Spanish, were second-class heretics subject to all manner of political and social disabilities. This is not to impugn the Muslims beyond the standards of the time, but it did limit cultural exchange. Muslims, many of whom bore names like al-Qudi (the Goth) or ibn Qasi (son of Cassius) that betrayed their native origins, preferred to speak the language of Allah and high civilisation. Likewise, like so many lower-class communities today, Christians would have looked askance at those who spoke like their resented overlords.

Musa ibn Qasi, the most celebrated scion of a family of Visigoth magnates who turned coat and joined the Saracens. The plinth of this bust identifies him as “king of the Ebro” (“rey del Ebro”).

Islam and Arabic put down the deepest roots in the fertile soil of the south, in the province that still bears the name Andalusia. Arabic toponymy pervades Andalusia, even more so than elsewhere in Spain. Its lifeblood flows through the river the Romans knew as the Baetis, but became the Guadalquivir, from Wadi al-Kabir, “the Great Valley.” At its tip, what was known to the ancients as the Pillars of Hercules is now the Mountain of the conqueror, Jabal Tariq: Gibraltar.

Here, of anywhere in Spain, one would expect enduring Arabic influence. One would be disappointed. Andalusia does have a unique accent: it levels the distinction between ll and y (both are pronounced like y in “yo”), and lacks the famous Castilian lisp (only in the south is Barcelona not “Barthelona”). It is typically looked down upon in Spain, but as the accent of the port of Seville and a disproportionate share of conquistadors, it is probably the single most important one in Spanish. Most Latin Americans speak like Andalusis.

Andalusia is unique in Spain, but the rest of Spain is unique in the wider Hispanophone world. It is interesting that this map includes the Philippines and Western Sahara, but few people still speak Spanish there.

Simplification would be in line with mass linguistic upheaval, but there is no evidence that the accent’s peculiarities are linked to the Saracen past. Philologists have been unable to isolate any Arabic substrate in Andaluz Spanish. There is reason to believe that there was once a Granada dialect with heavier Arabic influence, but it, along with Islam and the rest of the Moors’ legacy, was extinguished by the 17th Century. One might expect such deep roots to survive the frost. But no one expects the Spanish Inquisition.

No one.

Razia is a Spanish word referring to a lightning raid meant to inflict damage and confusion. As one might guess, it comes from Arabic. Arabic hit Spain fast, hot, and hard. It left an impact that is clear to behold to this day. But it is a relatively shallow one. Indeed, it is not much more profound than it might have been had the Arabs never conquered Spain at all. In spite of the foreign interlopers, Spanish (and Portuguese) developed the same way as the other Romance languages. Most Arabic words in English came via Italy, whose connection to the Arab world was mainly commercial (admittedly, Sicily was under Islamic rule for two centuries, but the emirs left a limited linguistic legacy). Indeed, many Spanish words of Arabic origin, especially scientific terms, came in via scholarly Latin, rather than organic contact.

In the early 8th Century, Spain had more or less come out on the other side of the centuries of upheaval that followed the fall of the Roman Empire. It was a prosperous kingdom with bustling ports and millennium-old commercial and cultural ties to North Africa. Centuries of Islamic rule left their mark on Spanish, but they also turned Spain into a war zone and made the traumatised Spaniards explicitly hostile to all things Saracen. It is possible that Arabic might have had a comparable influence on Spanish dialects if the ill-fated King Rodrigo had won. Unlike that of Scipio Africanus centuries earlier, Tariq ibn Ziyad’s victory did not mean linguistic conquest: ultimately, it was just a razia.

The Cathedral of Córdoba was first a Visigothic church, then a mosque, then a church again.

Former linguistics student; current investment bank analyst who sometimes thinks about something other than spreadsheets

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