10 Incredible Ways Arabic Influenced Spanish Culture and Language
The Arabic influence on Spanish is apparent to this day in terms of culture, language, music, and cuisine.
The Arabs occupied most of the Iberian peninsula for 800 years beginning the 8th century. That’s why the Spanish adopted not only words and phrases, but also traditions, customs, and innovations from Arabia.
This influence is evident through many sciences, arts, and disciplines that flourished in Spain. Especially Granada, Seville, and Toledo are cities where you see the Arabic influence on Spanish and the Iberic culture.
Arabs were a key part of the creation of Spain’s national identity. To understand and get closer to Spanish culture, you need to learn about its mixed past. Read ahead to discover:
- What language the Moors spoke
- Where the Spanish language originated
- Highlights of the Muslim influence in Spain
- The origin of the Spanish word ojala
- Facts about Arabic culture and traditions
- Spanish and Arabic words
¡Aprendamos de la influencia Árabe en el español!
Let’s learn about the Arabic influence on Spanish!
A Brief History of the Arabic Influence on Spanish
Some people think the Arab influence in Spain was limited to the southern region of Andalucía. However, according to scholars, it reached across the Iberian peninsula, which includes Spain and Portugal.
In 711, the Arabs arrived in Spain through the Strait of Gibraltar. Spain originally was a set of independent kingdoms. The Arabs conquered the region in seven years and the occupation ended in 1492.
During the Moor invasion of Spain, they did not destroy the culture of the places they occupied. As conquerors—unlike many others that we catalogue today as barbarians—they would preserve places, tolerate religions, and absorb cultures.
Most of the spread of information and ideas happened on trade routes, and Arabs had plenty of them. They were installed principally in the south of Spain, also known as Islamic Iberia or “Al Andalus”—today Andalusia.
Arabic influence on Spanish culture traveled in time and space to arrive in Latin America during the Spanish invasion.
Arabic Influence on Spanish Music
1. Musical Instruments and Styles
Spanish guitar and Flamenco come to mind when someone brings up Spanish music. Both are deeply rooted in Arabic culture and traditions.
The Flamenco appeared during the decline of the Moor invasion of Spain in the Middle Ages. Along the borders between the Christian and the Muslim Empires, Arabs, Christian, and Jews celebrated cultural exchange.
Some people think that the word Flamenco comes from “Flemish,” while others believe it comes from the Arabic “felag mangu,” which means “to flee.” Another theory is that it comes from the Arab word “flahencon” which means “singer.” Andalusian musicians often call themselves gitanos (gypsies) or flamenco.
Originally, Flamenco songs had vocals with lyrics about heartbreak, death, grief, and pain accompanied by improvised dances. Vocalizations such as the famous “ay-ay-ay” were transitions in Arabic songs.
Eventually they adopted the guitar and went from dancing on the streets of southern Spain to professionally do it in cafes. They also added drums and hand clapping as people do in the Northern parts of Africa.
The word guitarra comes from Andalusian Arabic. Although many similar instruments preceded the modern guitar, the one we know today is from southern Spain and was made by an Andalusian.
Many stories exist surrounding the guitar’s origin, but the most accepted one is that it was introduced by Arabs during the Moor invasion of Spain. And it evolved later in that country.
Structurally speaking, the Flamenco style traces back to Arabia and is distinct from the Western melodies of the time.
Arabic Influence on Spanish Culture
2. Technological and Scientific Innovations and Knowledge
The Arabs were known for their unparalleled scientific knowledge. Anyone who wanted to become skilled in disciplines—such as astronomy, alchemy, pharmacopoeia, math, engineering, botanics, medicine, or building—had to have an Arab teacher and become fluent in Arab. That was the only way of unlocking the door to technical terms and scientific advances.
As French thinker Gustave Lebon said, “If Musa ibn Nusayr had been able to conquer Europe, he would have made ir Muslim and would have saved it from the darkness of the Middle Ages which, thanks to the Arabs, Spain did not know.”
During the Arab rule in Spain, they created observatories, laboratories, botanical gardens, monuments, buildings, schools, and pharmacies.
Another of the Arabic influences on Spanish sciences was the reintroduction of Aristotelian philosophy, which was unknown in Europe during Medieval times.
Arabs introduced the concept of the zero in Spain. They also brought the game of chess in the year 1000 (first played in the city of Córdoba), as well as Arabic numerals and algebra.
Fun fact: Every student in Mexico had an algebra book with an Arab man on the cover—Al-Jwarizmi, the father of algebra. He was a mathematician and astronomer who developed the concept of the algorithm.
The Moors knew how to distill alcohol to make perfumes and medicines. This is more relevant than ever today, in the era of hand sanitizer.
5. Literature, an Oral Tradition
During the Middle Ages, most books were published in Arabic. It quickly became the language to know for writers of drama, poetry, or prose.
The jarchas were verses that are considered to be the precedents of the European carols. In prose, the “adab” style was the most prominent one with characteristic metrics, grammar, morals, and plots.
The Arabic influence on Spanish language and literature is evident in the book El lazarillo de Tormes, from the Golden Age of Spanish literature.
One of the biggest Arabic legacies in literature is Arabian Nights, the classic book containing the stories of Aladdin and Ali Baba.
Even the great Cervantes alludes to its Arabic ascendance in his famous book Don Quijote. The epic poetry and chivalry books of Spain have clear roots in Arabic literary traditions.
6. The Use of Herbs, Spices, Chickpeas, and Rice
The Arabic influence on Spanish cuisine is tasty, too! The spicy and aromatic Spanish dishes owe their main components to the Arab culinary tradition. For example, paella is a delicious Valencian dish made with rice and saffron.
People eat Arabic-influenced Christmas dinners in the south of Spain to this day. Not only for main courses but also desserts—like nougats and marzipans—as the Arabs introduced sugar cane to Spain.
Almonds, dried fruits, dates, eggplants, banana leaves, artichoke, asparagus, cinnamon, sesame, ginger, anise, and nutmeg are popular foods, herbs, and spices that the Arabs brought to Spain.
See also: Albondigas (#5) – Spanish cuisine
Arabic Influence on Spanish Language
The Arabic influence on Spanish runs deep. At least 4,000 Spanish words come from Arabic, which sets Spanish apart from other Romance languages.
The Arab language has a vast vocabulary. That’s why some consider it unparalleled for writing poetry or prose.
Because Arabic was the strongest vehicle to transport their culture, they taught it in Spain.
Modern Spanish is a combination of Arabic words and elements with old Castilian, a linguistic descendant of the vulgar Latin the Romans spoke.
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7. Names of Places
Names of places also illustrate the Arabic influence on Spanish. All of these names have Arabic roots, and Spaniards preserved them even after Arabs were gone. This table contains examples of cities and regions and their meanings.
|Gibraltar||mountain of Tariq|
|Guadalajara||stone river or valley|
|Guadalupe||valley of the wolf|
|La Mancha||no water|
8. Everyday Words
Moors speak Arabic, and they are proud of their language, which has survived for over 1,400 years. They’ve gone great lengths to keep it as pure as possible, but at the same time, they would adopt terms from other languages. That’s how they ended up having a huge amount of vocabulary.
Here’s an example of synonyms in our everyday use of language:
- olives – aceitunas (Arabic), olivas (Latin)
- migraine – jaqueca (Arabic), migraña (Latin)
- scorpion – alacrán (Arabic), escorpión (Latin)
|flight attendant||la azafata|
|cafe, coffee||el café|
|door knocker||la aldaba|
|executor of a will||el albacea|
|mayor’s office||la alcaldía|
|price list||la tarifa|
|suburb, neighborhood||el barrio|
- 40 Spanish Words That Came From Arabic
- Most Commonly Spoken Languages in Latin America (Other Than Spanish)
Hasta la vista
Do you remember the Terminator’s phrase Hasta la vista, baby? Well, that could not have been possible if it weren’t for the Arabic influence on Spanish. The word hasta is a preposition—the only one—inherited from the Arabs.
The origin of the word ojalá comes from “in sha’a Allah”—meaning “if God wants” or “God Willing.” In Spanish, we use it all the time, and it translates to English as “if only” or “I hope.”
The origin of this word is disputed between the Greek and Arabic roots. But if it comes from the Arabs, the word olé originates from Allah or “God,” and it is what the Arabs would say as an expression after looking at an inspiring artwork.
The closest translation to English is “bravo.” In Mexico, we use it to mean “wow!”.
Arabic Influence on Spanish Architecture
10. Architectural Patterns, Shapes, and Design
Moorish or Islamic architecture has easily identifiable features such as arches, flower designs, geometric patterns, pointed arches, tiles, water spaces, and calligraphy.
Examples of Arabic influence on Spanish architecture:
- The Great Mosque at Cordoba (today a cathedral)
- Seville’s Giralda
- Granada’s Alhambra
Upgrade Your Spanish Skills
There’s no doubt about the Arabic influence on Spanish culture. You see it in their architecture, arts, sciences, language, and food. Now that you know about the Arabic influence on Spanish culture and language, are you inspired to learn Spanish?
Spanish is the language with the most native speakers worldwide besides Chinese—over 483 million. Plus, there are 41 million native Spanish speakers in the U.S. who speak Spanish in their homes. It’s one of the most in-demand languages when it comes to translation services—which could mean a job opportunity for you. If you’re trying to get closer to the Spanish and Latin American cultures, learning the language will help you travel easier. For more motivation, check out 15 Impressive Reasons to Learn Spanish.
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