Many people are familiar with the fact that the Arabs controlled or maintained a cultural presence in Spain for about 900 years (If not, i recommend you give this wiki page about it a quick look-over). It should be of no surprise then to learn of the Arabic influence on the developing Iberian tongue. This of course has been well documented of the Spanish lexicon, and it has been estimated that about 8% of the Spanish vocabulary is of Arabic origin — no small amount when considering that’s about one in every twelve words. These words include such important daily terms as:

  • Sp. hasta: until, even, to, through. From Ar. ḥatta (حتى)
  • Sp. azul: blue. From Ar. Azraq (ازرق)
  • Sp. loco: crazy. From Ar. lawqa “fool.”
  • Sp. ¡ole! (or olé): The most famous expression of approval, support or encouragement, possibly comes from Ar. wa-llah (و الله): by Allah (God)!
  • Sp. cero: zero. From Ar. sifr (صفر)
  • Sp. café: coffee. From Ar. qahwa (قهوة)
  • Sp. tarea: task. From Ar. ṭaríḥa root(طرح), “to throw”.

Here’s a full list of Spanish vocabulary with an Arabic origin.

The familiar vocabulary words will be a welcome sight for any Spanish speaker attempting to learn Arabic or vice versa, but there are many similarities of stylistics and grammar that will be notable as well. Oddly enough, counter-intuitively, these are all almost entirely coincidental and have essentially nothing to do with influence of Arabic on Spanish. These are the 10 most notable similarities i’ve found, so far (some of which are actually common in other languages, too):

  1. Surprisingly similar definite articles: Sp. “el/la”, Ar. “al”.
  2. Similar flexible syntax of VSO (verb-subject-object) and SVO (sub.-verb.-obj) in various contexts. Summarized in this excerpt from the wikipedia on the subject: “Both the Spanish and Greek language resemble Semitic languages such as Arabic in allowing for both VSO and SVO structures: e.g. “Jesús vino el jueves” / Vino Jesús el jueves, “Tu madre dice que no vayas”/”dice tu madre que no vayas”. In Spanish, the only restriction on the VSO form is for the object to require a definite or indefinite article in the sentence.”
  3. The word for “there is/are” is a single word which is treated less like a verb or noun, and more like a preposition of sorts, and is unrelated to the demonstrative pronouns. The usage and connotation is exactly the same: “hay” in Spanish and “fī” in many colloquial variants of Arabic.
  4. The conjunction “or” is expressed with “o/u” in Spanish and “aw” in Arabic, which in normal speech is pronounced very similarly.
  5. An arbitrary gender system for nouns and adjectives, with the feminine marked by a suffixed “a” sound, in Arabic called the “taa marbuta” (ة).
  6. Suffixed direct and indirect object pronouns. Ex.: “Tell me it” Sp. Dímelo, Ar. Qul-li-ha : the exact same morpho-semantic units, with simply different sounds making them up.
  7. A comparative-superlative adjective system which depends on a combination of context, word order, and the definite article to convey one or the other. Ex.: Sp. Fátima es la más alta. Ar. Fatima hiya aṭwal فاطمة هي أطول (gloss: Fatima she[-is] taller[-one].)
  8. The use of adjectives as nouns. Arabic actually views nouns and adjectives as effectively the same thing, because an adjective literally would translate as a noun + adjective, so “beautiful” (jamīl جميل) would literally be “beautiful-one”. Spanish appears to have a similar view of adjectives. Ex.: Sp. La joven; aquel viejo; este ciego; los altos están allí; etc.
  9. Common omission of the subject pronoun of a sentence due to the precision of verb conjugations–the use of pronouns being mainly for emphasis or formality.
  10. N-final plural verb conjugations. Ex.: Sp. Ellos/ellas/ustedes hacen; Ar. They (m.) do: yafʿulūn يَفْعُلُونَ; You (m. pl.) do: tafʿulūn تَفْعُلُونَ; they two (dual 3rd person): yafʿulān يَفْعُلاَنِ. (And of course these conjugation patterns apply to all the verbs of the languages).

Wikipedia mentions this as a non-coincidental influence of Arabic on Spanish grammar:
The suffix í: Arabic has a very common type of adjective, known as the nisba or relationship adjective, which is formed by adding the suffix -ī (masc.) or ية -iyya (fem.) to a noun. This has given Spanish the suffix -í (both masc. and fem.), creating adjectives from nouns which indicate relationship or belonging. Examples are Marbellí, Ceutí, Maghrebí, Zaragocí, Andalusí or Alfonsí.

I hope that this information with all prove useful to anyone studying Arabic or Spanish with a knowledge of the other language! Starting at the common ground, i find, tends to be the fastest, most effective way to learn a new language.

- J. Ibrahim Abuhamada

*I’m not certain, due to my ignorance of the language in depth, but i would assume most, if not all of these similarities apply to Portuguese as well.

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