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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.
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.)
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: 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.