What’s With all the Al- Words in Spanish?

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Mario and I went to Italy on our honeymoon. (In July, no less.) It was there that Mario unlearned his very first Spanish word, the word for basil. You see, in Italy, we were eating quite a few Caprese salads (insalata caprese), a simple salad from Capri consisting of sliced tomatoes and mozzarella, fresh basil, seasoned with salt and olive oil. This salad? Our idea of summer perfection, so we ordered it more than a few times. Mario liked to fancy himself an Italian speaker, so he would order while I pretended I didn’t know English or Italian or Spanish. (Clueless guiri card? Yeah, I’ll play it, even in Italy.) He probably read the description of the insalata caprese a few times, all of which mentioned basilico.

Basil Albahaca

Back in Spain, Mario kept referring to basil as basilico, the Italian word for basil. I thought he was just being cute and trying to remind me of our time in Italy, but it soon became apparent: Mario actually thought the word was basílico, when it was in fact albahaca. I let this go on for a few more days before kindly telling him, “Mario, en tu idioma se dice albahaca.”

Albahaca is one of the many Spanish words that just happen to begin with al-. Or maybe they don’t just happen to begin with these two letters; maybe there’s a reason. (Of course there’s a reason. There’s always a reason.)

So what’s with these al- words in Spanish?

The Arab Influence

The Arabs have had considerable influence on the Spanish language. They occupied parts of the Iberian peninsula from 711 up until 1609, when they were expelled from Spain. They had an even greater impact in southern Spain and a lesser one in northern Spain, so the Catalonian language has been less affected. (See a map of the linguistic evolution.)

Moors in Spain

Muslims in the Iberian Peninsula, taken from the Hadith Bayad wa Riyad

Nowadays we use these Arabic “loanwords” without even realizing it. The majority of these examples are nouns:

  • Albaricoque: Apricot. This word comes from an Arabic word meaning “plum” or “early-ripe.”
  • Albóndiga: Meatballs. (Who doesn’t love IKEA’s albóndigas?) This comes from a word meaning “the ball.”
  • Alcalde: Mayor. Originally meaning something like “the judge.”
  • Alfombra: Rug.
  • Alguacil: Sheriff.

Of course, there are also words that don’t begin with al- that have Arabic origins, including the following:

  • Barrio: Neighborhood. .
  • Naranja: Orange.
  • Bellota: Acorn. (Where would we be without jamón ibérico de bellota?)
  • Ojalá: I wish that. This word comes from the Muslim expression “God willing.”
  • Rincón: Corner.
  • Azar: Luck, chance.
  • Loco: Crazy. (But you already knew that …)
  • Jabalí: Wild boar.
  • Cero: Zero

Arabic City Names

Arabic is also evident in many place names around the Iberian peninsula.

Almería Spain

Almería, Spain

  • Almería: This city, located in Andalucía, has a name derived from the Arabic meaning “watchtower.”
  • Guadalquivir: A river famous in Sevilla, this city’s name meant “the big river.”
  • Badajoz: Although the Romans called it Pax Augusta, Badajoz is most likely derived from the Arabic’s corruption of the original Latin name. (Zaragoza had a similar fate. It was originally called Cesarea Augusta, which was transformed into Saraqusţah—Zaragoza.)
  • Madrid: My current city’s name was al-Magrīt in Arabic, meaning “source” or “spring,” in reference to the Manzanares river, which flows through it.

Okay, maybe this post is a little boring and nerdy for you. I understand; I get that. But all my fellow linguistic nerds, rejoice! And then tell me your favorite Arabic-Spanish words.

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17 comments

  1. I’m a huge language nerd, so I loved this. My favorite Arabic-derived Spanish word? Azúcar! I’m guessing “sugar” has the same roots, as well as the Russian “sakhar.”

  2. I love this post and share in your fellow nerdiness! I study French and Spanish at university and part of my course has focussed on linguistics, which I personally find fascinating. I particularly like that a lot of mathematical words in Spanish are Arabic loanwords, such as ‘alegbra’ due to Arab society being so much more scientifically advanced in the medieval period. I love how language can give you little insights into history like that.

  3. My beloved Andalucía itself is from the Arabic word Al-Andalus. Who doesn’t like saying Ojalá, you can’t say it without a hint of drama in your voice. :o) I loved this post, I too am a history and language nerd.

  4. I think part of the reason that Spanish, especially the andaluz accent, is such a fascinating and unique language to me is its underlying Arabic substrate, which has given it so many beautiful words of non-Latin origin. We would be remiss not to mention “aceite” and “aceituna”!

    “Guadalajara” probably wins the award for most-fun-city-name-to-say–River of Stones–although Jaén is a close second–Crossroads–with its super-throaty jota at the beginning. :)

  5. A lot of what you wrote is stuff I studied during my master’s at NYU in Madrid when I took my history of the Spanish language class. And I thought I had forgotten it all but this post just brought me back. The professor was quite the character. So I thought all of this was super interesting.

  6. Not boring at all – this stuff is fascinating. That period in Spanish history is the one that I like to study the most. I remember learning about this in school and thinking it was amazing how much that period influenced today’s Spain. Sometimes the kids I tutor/teach will say something that sounds like “Allah” (which means “God” in Arabic) and they don’t even realize it, haha. The way they say it sounds like they’d use it as “My God!”, too.

    Had no idea “Azar” was a word in Spanish. Pretty cool – that’s my brother in law’s last name!

  7. Almendras! and the almond trees in southern Spain with their beautiful white flowers. I love this nerdy post – I want more of them!

  8. Alguacil was new to me! I’m going to add that one to the to-learn pile :)

    One word that I really love that comes from Arabic is azafrán! It’s just so darn fun to say.

  9. I’m a total word nerd, too! When I was in Marrakech last summer, I had a great time comparing Spanish and Arabic words with one of our guides – like aceituna and “zaytun”. I love that language can provide such a fascinating and enduring connection to history. One of my personal favorites – azahar. I can’t see or hear the word without thinking of the amazing smell…

  10. Recently learned in my beginning Arabic class that the Spanish word ataúd (coffin) may have come from the Arabic “tabuut” ; they sound pretty similar. One of my favorite Al- words is Alcázar (said Spain-style of course! :) )

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