Discovering the Arabic Influence on the Spanish Language with David Bowles - When in Spain Ep.44

Updated: Jul 8, 2020

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I explore the influence of Arabic on the Spanish language with the expert help of linguist, writer and university professor, David Bowles.

"When you call someone “moreno,” you’re calling them “Moorish.”

What do the Spanish words Hasta, Loco, Barrio, Aceite, Moreno, Ojalá, Chaleco, Tarea and Fideo all have in common?

They're all Arabic origin words that have been absorbed into the Spanish language. Arabic is tightly wound up within Spanish, more so than most people know.

Most people think that Arabic words only exist in Spanish as place names. But Arabic's influence on Spanish runs much deeper than that. Spanish has some 1,000 Arabic roots and about 3,000 derived words, so nearly 4,000 in total, that's 8% of the Spanish language.

Barrio definition
Barrio from barriyy meaning wild

David explains how Arabic percolated across the Iberian peninsular and how Arabic and Mozarabic gave way to modern Spanish words. He also walks us through the history of the Moorish presence on the Iberian. For 781 years, from 711 to 1492, all or large parts of modern Spain were under Muslim rule. Al-Andalus, that territory was called.

When Muslim forces took the Iberian Peninsula from the Visigoths in the early 8th century, the Latin that had been brought there in 210 was already evolving into various Romance languages.

In al-Andalus, a set of related Andalusi Romance dialects developed, heavily influenced by Arabic. In the small Christian kingdoms to the north, others evolved: Leonese, Castilian, Aragonese, Galician, Catalan, Portuguese.

Map off the Al-Andalus and Christian kingdoms circa 1000
Al-Andalus and Christian kingdoms circa 1000

David shares with us some of his favourite Arabic loanwords and describes their evolution and transformation and we also stumble across some other curiosities of the Spanish language.

Here are a few common examples. But we talk about many more fascinating Arabic origin words in the podcast episode.

Ojalá. (Hopefully) From the Andalusi Arabic "law šá lláh" ("God willing"), from Classical Arabic "wa-šā’ allāh" وَشَاءَ اللّٰه

Loco. (Crazy) From Classical Arabic "lawqāʔ" through Andalusi Arabic "láwqa," feminine of "alwáq" or "stupid." In other words, "loca" was first adopted into Spanish, then the masculine "loco" was derived from it.

Barrio (Neighbourhood) It derives from Andalusi Arabic بَرِّي "barri" (“exterior”), which meant the rural, less civilized edges of a city, from Classical Arabic بَرِيّ "barriyy" (“wild”).

Tarea (task, chore, homework--like the work I'm avoiding). From Arabic طَرِيحَة (ṭarīḥa, “endeavor, job to be completed soon”), from the Classical Arabic root طرح (ṭáraḥa, “to throw”).

Chaleco (Vest). Old & Medieval Spanish had a few variations on this word: "gileco" & "jaleco," for example. The word comes from Arabic "jalīkah," a jacket worn by Algerian prisoners, ultimately derived from Turkish "yelek" (bodice/vest of Ottoman women's dresses).

Fideo (Noodle) It was first adopted (like many of these terms) by Andalusi Romance dialects (collectively known as Mozarabic) from the Andalusi Arabic word "fidáwš" or ... فِيدَاوْس

If you'd like to see more of David's work check out his Twitter, personal website and articles on Medium via the links below:

David's personal webpage: Twitter @DavidOBowles

Articles on Medium including this one, Arabic in Spanish - Part 1

David Bowles
David Bowles - Linguist, writer & professor at University of Texas Rio Grande Valley