Spanish and Arabic and their Striking Similarities

by Alexandra Buhl and Christiana Pittman

Although the dry dunes of the Arabian Kingdom and oscillating plains of South America are extremely far apart, on different sides of the world, the people of these distant regions have far more in common than you may realize. In 711 AD, the Moors (Arab and Berber inhabitants of North Africa) conquered the Iberian Peninsula. For 800 years, they ruled the Peninsula, infusing the existing cultures with their own linguistic and artistic achievements. During this time, the Moors introduced the compass, astrolabe, and concept of zero to the natives - all tools which eventually guided Columbus to claim the New World for Spain before other European countries could in 1492. Although, during this same year, the Moors lost political power in Spain, their cultural influence was just beginning to gain prominence as Columbus would soon share all the cultural and linguistic influences the Moors brought to Spain with the New World.

In many ways, the Spanish language was shaped by Arabic. In fact, about 4,000 Spanish words (or 8% of the language) come directly from Arabic. The majority of these words are nouns and, as is the same for Spanish words, are preceded by the article “the” or “a” and “al” in Arabic. For this reason many of the Spanish words that come from Arabic begin with this “a” or “al”. Therefore, when one is saying “la almohada” (pillow), in a way, he or she is saying saying “the the pillow”. Other surprisingly similar words include aceituna from زيتون (zaytun) meaning olive, café from قهوة (qahua) or coffee, pantalones from بنطلون (bantalun) meaning pants, camisa from قميص (qamis) meaning shirt, hasta from حتى (hataa) meaning until, mascara from المسكرة (almuskara) meaning mask, azucar from السكر (alsukar) meaning sugar, and taza from تازة (taza) meaning cup.

Many names of famous Spanish cities also boast Arabic origins: Madrid which means “a breeze”, Andalusia which means “the vandals”, and Murcia which means “an Egyptian” are a few of many examples. Furthermore, the Arabs shared the “nisba”, or practice of adding “í” at the end of a place to indicate a relationship or belonging to that specific place, with the Spaniards. Spanish words “morroquí” and “andalusí”, for example, both have a nisba (“í” ending) and refer to a person from Morocco and Andalucia, respectively. Additionally, a number of common expressions such “ojalá” (I hope), correlating with Arabic “law sha Allah” (if God wills), and “¡olé!” share Arabic roots as well. Interestingly enough, these are only a few examples of the several thousand similarities that exist and that Spanish speakers still use every day. Therefore, if you speak Spanish, you know a little Arabic as well.

The Arabs not only influenced the way Spaniards spoke but also how they sang - and danced. The Arabs introduced their folkloric music in the form of the 6/8 time signature jaleo - a lively, fast paced rhythm that includes hand clapping and tambourines. The guitar was also brought to Spain and, now, is an essential rhythmic device in flamenco. In addition zajal, or Arabic lyric poetry is the origin of the the common poetic and musical form, villancico, what today we recognize as a Christmas carol.

However, during the Spanish Inquisition, it was rare to hear people singing or dancing as there was a great fear of being persecuted. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, both Catholic rulers who eventually succeeded in ousting the Arabs from Spain, brutally fought to rid Spain of all Arabic influence in order to maintain European traditions. In fact, many historians believe that the name flamenco is a mispronunciation of the word for “fugitive peasant” in Arabic and that the flamenco dance is so expressive and emotional because it was originally used to convey the Moor’s suffering in Spain. However, despite all odds, Arabic traditions did not die. Although dances such as this one and others such as zarabanda were prohibited at the time, they still found their way into great literary works - like Don Quixote - and modern festivals, demonstrating the persistence and zeal of Arabic culture.

The Moors also had an equally potent influence on Spanish food and on what today are some of the most popular Spanish dishes. Arguably one of the most well-known ingredients in Spanish cuisine, rice was introduced to the Spaniards by the Moors. Today, rice is found in almost every Hispanic restaurant from being the base in dishes like paella, arroz a la cubana, and arroz negro or just a tasty side. Also found in the dish paella, the Moors introduced the Spaniards to saffron. Other spices and products they brought include cinnamon, almonds, artichoke, apricot, and grapefruit.

Although bringing many crops that the Spaniards would eventually adopt as their own, the Moors did more than just introduce a few new products. The Moors taught the Spaniards how to irrigate, making previously scarce crops like olives and almonds, essential ingredients in Spanish food. In addition to bringing new farming practices, the Moors also introduced the Spaniards to new cooking practices. The Spanish tapas, or small savory bar snacks, are usually fried in oil - a practice that the Moors initiated themselves. Furthermore, despite there not being any tomatoes in Spain at the time of Moorish occupation, Spain’s famous cold tomato soup - gazpacho - borrows many characteristics from its older Moorish counterpart - ajo blanco. Instead of including tomatoes, the Moors added potatoes to their version of the soup. However, despite this difference, it is safe to say that these African Muslims had a great influence on modern Spanish cuisine - if not a dominant one.

Especially noticeable in cities like Seville, Barcelona, and Granada, many aspects of Arabian architecture also filtered through onto Spanish buildings. As shown in the pictures below, the same geometric tiles, ornate designs, symmetric buildings, and outdoor vilas and beds of water are found in both cultures’ architecture. As is apparent, Arabic architecture is more prevalent in Spain’s southernmost cities - the major population centers that were located closest to Northern Africa and, therefore, the first to be conquered.

Photos of Moorish and Arab architecture

Although any significant Spanish and Arabic interaction may seem to have died out with the Catholic rulers’ reconquest of Spain, these two cultures have not ceased borrowing from and enhancing one another. As many Moroccan immigrants (774,000 to be exact) pour into Spain and as Spaniards travel to Ceuta and Melilla - Spanish owned cities in Morocco - the long contact between the two cultures is extended and the lasting connection is reinforced. Spain’s journey with acculturation is not a thing of the past but, instead, a perspective of viewing who Spaniards are as a people and a guiding tool, teaching us that even though cultures may seem different, we all have more in common than we think.


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