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Spanish and its Arabic influence

Updated: Jun 3, 2021

Spain has a long and deeply connected history with the Arabic world. During a period of over 600 years, large parts of Spain was under Arabic rule. We could use years on studying this era, but for simplicity, and to introduce our subject, we have shortened it down, and simplified it.

In an earlier post we talked about the terms Spanish and Castilian (read the post here), and we mentioned the Arabic influence on the Spanish language. In this post we will take a closer look.

But first some history:

Al-Ándalus - Arabic Spain

Between 711 and 1492, the Iberian Peninsula was ruled by different Muslim caliphates and kingdoms, now commonly referred to as Al-Andalus. It reached as far north as southern France in its early days and shrunk down towards the south of Spain towards the end. The so-called Golden Age of Al-Andalus were between 929-1031, under the rule of the Califate of Córdoba, with the city of Córdoba being the biggest city in Europe and known as a “beacon of learning”. Al-Andalus became a major educational centre for Europe and the lands around the Mediterranean Sea as well as a conduit for cultural and scientific exchange between the Islamic and Christian worlds. The legacy of Al-Andalus is strong and has commonly been portrayed as a place modern nations should stride to be like: powerful, tolerant, mass producer of art, literature, and innovation.

Reconquista - Battle image

In the same period as Al-Andalus, the Christian kingdoms fought back to reclaim land from the Moorish rulers. This period is today referred to as the “Reconquista”, and ended in 1492, when the last Muslim Emirate, the Emirate of Granada, fell into the hands of Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic Monarchs (Reyes Católicos), and with that, laid the foundation for what is today modern Spain.

City of Toledo
City of Toledo

During the Reconquista, the Kingdom of Castile conquered large territories from the Moorish rulers in the 11th to the 13th century, one of these territories being the “taifa” of Toledo. After the conquer, the “Escuela de Traductores de Toledo” (Toledo School of Translators), a group of scholars, started working on translating philosophical and religious work from Arabic into Latin. Later, when Alfonso X came to power in 1252, he changed the target language of the translations from Latin into Castilian, creating the foundation of the Spanish we know today. Influence from the spoken dialects in the area (heavily influenced by Arabic), as well as translated documents later seized from the diminishing Al-Andalus played a critical role in the development of Castilian.

Alfonso X
Alfonso X

Under Alfonso X, Toledo got an increasingly important role as a translation centre, gathering some of the world’s best translator, and translating documents that would play an important role in the world’s history.

Ethnic-linguistic map of Southwestern Europe

Fast forwarding until today; the Arabic influence is usually greater in the areas that were under Moorish rule the longest, namely the south of Spain. The dialects in southern Spain, known collectively as Castellano meridional or Southern Castilian, seem collectively to show a higher degree of preference for Arabism.

It is now estimated that there are about one thousand Arabic roots, and approximately three thousand derived words, for a total of around four thousand words or 8% of the Spanish dictionary - the second largest lexical influence on Spanish after Latin.

The Mosque of Córdoba
The Mosque of Córdoba

Southern Spain is well known for its Arabic influence, you can see great examples of its architecture, like the mosque of Córdoba, the Alhambra in Granada and the “Giralda”, the belltower of the Seville Cathedral.


To give an example on how Arabic still exists in Spanish, let us take a quick tour to our home city, Málaga, and look at how Arabic have influenced the names and places in the city.

Firstly, when driving into the city from the airport, you cross over the river Guadalhorce. This name derives from the Arabic wādī l-jurs (“río de los silenciosos”; in English, “river of the silent”). Guadal meaning “river”. The word Guadal is quite common in Andalucía when naming rivers.

Just before arriving at the old town you will cross another river, the Guadalmedina (wādi l-madina; in English, “river of the city”). Many will recognize the word medina, Arabic for “city”, or “old city”. If you take a trip to any Arabic nation, you will most probably take a walk in their “medina”.

Alcazaba - Málaga
Alcazaba - Málaga

Another important monument in Málaga is the Alcazaba, the Moorish fortification in the middle of the city. “Alcazaba” comes from the Arabic al-qaṣabah and means “walled fortification in a city”.

You also might want to visit the local market, known in Málaga as “Atarazanas”. This word comes from the Arabic dar al-sina'a, meaning “shipyard”. In the old Arabic Málaga, this was the place where ships were repaired.

Finally, one of the newer museums opened in Málaga is the “Palacio de la Aduana”, the Customs Palace, now housing the Museum of Málaga. Built between 1791-1829 it was originally used as a customs house for the port of Málaga. The Spanish word “Aduana” (Custom) comes from the Arabic ad-dīwān, meaning “the administrative office”.

This is just a few, and you will find similar examples scattered all around Spain.

Underneath you will find a list of some common Spanish words listing the Arabic origin and the English translation.

The influence from Arabic is vast, and we have just scratched the surface. We are interested to know, have you seen any Arabic influence on your visits to Spain, or maybe in your own country? Please let us know in a comment on Facebook or Instagram!

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