Shared Vocabulary Connects Speakers of Spanish and Arabic

The Spanish language has a long history of Arabic influences, including some still heard today.

By Joy DiazSeptember 15, 2015 8:30 am| , ,

This story was originally posted on KUT

It is Hispanic Heritage Month – a heritage that runs so deep in Texas that the original contracts of the first Anglo-American settlers who came to what would become the state of Texas were all handwritten in Spanish.

At the time, Stephen F. Austin, founder of the first and largest colony, wrote all his correspondence in Spanish. He even occasionally signed as Estevan – the Spanish version of his name.

As a native Spanish-speaker, I was surprised to learn about the connections between Spanish and other languages.
Spanish is a Romance language, but it’s much more than that.

Rihab Massif was my daughter’s preschool teacher in Austin. Massif is originally from Lebanon. As a little girl, Camila, my daughter, spoke mostly in Spanish. And Massif remembers a day when Camila was frustrated because she couldn’t remember a word in English.

“She was telling me about her ‘camis,'” Massif says.

Camisa is the word in Spanish for “shirt,” and Massif understood it perfectly because camis means the same thing in Arabic.

“And I was like ‘Oh! There are some words related to Arabic,’” she says.

To see just how many, Massif and I did an exercise.

I’d say a word in Spanish, and she’d say it back in Arabic.

“Aceite?”

“We say ceit,” Massif says.

“Guitarra?”

“We say guitar.”

Now that I am aware, it seems like I hear Arabic words everywhere.

Take, for instance, one of my favorite songs by Latin Grammy winner Juan Luis Guerra.

“Ojalá que llueva café” is peppered with words like café (coffee) and ojalá (God willing, or hopefully) — both of which come from Arabic.

Or, take late salsa singer Celia Cruz’s catchphrase, ¡Azucar!, or sugar — another Arabic word.

Linguist Victor Solis Parejo from the University of Barcelona in Spain says part of the language Spanish speakers use is the legacy of the Moorish influence. “Moors” was the name used to refer to the Arabic-speaking group from North Africa that invaded what would become Spain back in the eighth century. Their influence lasted about 700 years and is still visible today.

“Especially if you travel [the] South of Spain – for example, in Merida in the city where I was born – we have the Alcazaba Arabe, an Arabic fortification,” Parejo says. “So, you can see that in the cities nowadays, but you can also see that Islamic presence, that Arabic presence in the language.”

And of course, that presence traveled to the Americas when the Spaniards came here. About 4,000 Spanish words are believed to come directly from Arabic. That’s why Maria Gutierrez, a Mexican aid worker with a non-profit in Jordan, says she carries a small notebook with her wherever she goes.

“Yeah! I’m trying to track all those words. It’s like, ‘one more word!’ At least everyday I’ll find a word, and I’ll be like, ‘oh, it’s exactly the same as Spanish!’ or ‘it’s very close to Spanish,'” she says.

The sooner Gutierrez masters the language, the sooner she’ll be effective with her aid work, and right now being able to speak Spanish is giving her a shortcut.

But why should this merger of Spanish and Arabic matter to Texans? Well, two most spoken languages in Texas are English and Spanish. So, some wonder what could happen to these languages as time goes by, including Parejo.

“I believe that languages are alive,” he says.

As such, languages adapt and adopt and borrow words from each other, especially languages that live in close proximity.

“I still remember when I first came to Texas,” he says, “and I went to this restaurant with my wife and the waiter asked us, ‘Do you want to have dinner inside or do you want to go to the patio?’ I [had] never heard that word in English.”

Patio is a Spanish word.

If the influence exists to the point that we often joke about the existence of “Spanglish,” imagine what Texans will be speaking in, say, 100 or 200 years. The Instituto Cervantes of Harvard University estimates that by 2050 there will be 130 million Spanish-speakers in the U.S., which would effectively make the U.S. the largest Spanish-speaking country in the world.