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The Impact Of The Arabic Language And Culture On English And The Other European Languages

posted on: Apr 27, 2016



BY: Habeeb Salloum/Contributing Writer

From the desert they came – men filled with religious zeal and riding under banners inscribed with the motto: “There is no god but God and Muhammad is His messenger.” Leaving the conquered Middle East and North Africa behind they landed on the Iberian Peninsula where they planted their religion and language.

These men who came out of the Arabian desert were not the usual conquerors. The cultures of the countries they occupied were not destroyed, as had been the fate of civilizations overwhelmed by other victorious armies, but preserved. Later these cultures were absorbed and enriched to form the Arab-Islamic civilization that was to be mankind’s pathfinder for many centuries.

Arabic, the language of these men from the desert was one of the most important vehicles which carried this culture of the East to the Europe of the Dark Ages. In the deserts of Arabia, before the Islamic conquest, this Semitic tongue had become a beautiful language of poetry. In that barren and inhospitable land it had developed an enormous vocabulary. For any object to be found in their desert, the Arabs had many words.

A poet had no trouble in rhyming his verses, for he had a large storehouse of synonyms from which to draw. Hence, Arabic became unmatched as a language of prose and poetry.

The Arabs were proud of their language and believed it had no equal among the tongues of mankind. As befitting a proud people, they spent much effort trying to keep their basic language pure. Even after the Islamic conquests, when foreign influences began to stealthily move in, scholars tried to stem this tide. Omar S. Pound in his book Arabic and Persian Poems in English writes:

“The Arab prides himself on using the ‘mot juste’ and in ancient times many an Arab scholar is reported to have travelled great distances to find out the exact meaning of rare word used by an obscure Bedouin tribe. Often we read of guests from far-off lands being closely cross-examined on the use and meaning of a particular word found only in the guest’s tribe.”

When Islam was established and moved out of its Arabian homeland, Arabic was the language that carried its message. Every converted Muslim wanted to learn the tongue of these desert men for it was believed that Arabic was the mother of all tongues first taught to Adam in Paradise.

Anwar Chejne in his work, The Arabic Language: Its Role in History, writes that an Arab author, Ibn Manzur (14th century), in the introduction of his book Lisan, states that God made the Arabic tongue superior to all other languages, and enhanced it further by revealing the Qur’an through it, therefore making it the language of Paradise. Ibn Manzur further relates a tradition of the Prophet Muhammad who said: “They (people) loved the Arabs for three reasons: “I am an Arab; the Qur’an is Arabic; and the language of Paradise is Arabic.”

However, this pride of language did not stop the Arabs from enhancing their tongue after the conquests. From the newly conquered peoples Arabic borrowed a whole range of scientific and technical terms. These words enriched the desert tongue with its many synonyms to produce a world language ‘par excellence’.

Soon after the Islamic conquests, Arabic emerged as a full-fledged language of empire and an instrument of thought which was to last well into medieval times. Perhaps there is no language in the world today that has survived some 1,400 years in its original form as has Arabic moulded in that century of Arab greatness.

In our time it is the only tongue in the world where an ordinary person, even Arabs who are semi-educated, can pick up a book of poetry written in the 6th century and understand its contents. All of the ancient languages have either died out or have vastly changed, and all other languages came into existence long afterward.

From the 8th to the 12th centuries, Arabic became the scientific language of mankind. During this period anyone who desired to advance in the world and become a skilled and learned man had to study Arabic, just as in our day English opens the door to technical and scientific advancement for ambitious men and women.

During these centuries more works were produced in Arabic than in all the languages of the world. One of the many libraries in Cordova alone had some 400,000 volumes of handwritten manuscripts; this at a time when Europe was in the middle of the Dark Ages, and washing the body was considered a dangerous custom.

In the Muslim regions of Spain the use of Arabic quickly spread. By the 10th century elementary education was general throughout Arab Spain. With the exception of the very poor, all boys and girls attended school. Unlike the Christian parts of Spain and the countries of northern Europe, the vast majority of people were literate. Arabic, the language of this literate population, reached dazzling heights.

In less than a century even the Christians living under Muslim rule became so proficient in Arabic that they neglected their own languages. R. Dozy in Spanish Islam asserts that the Christians were captivated by the glamour of Arabic literature and that men of taste despised Latin authors, and wrote only in the language of their conquerors. He cites Alvaro, a contemporary writer of that period, who deplores this fact with these words:

“My fellow-Christians, he says, delight in the poems and romances of the Arabs; they study the works of Mohammedan theologians and philosophers, not in order to refute them, but to acquire a correct and elegant Arabic style. Where to-day can a layman be found who reads the Latin Commentaries on Holy Scriptures? Who is there that studies the Gospels, the Prophets, the Apostles? Alas! the young Christians who are most conspicuous for their talents have no knowledge of any literature or language save the Arabic; they read and study with avidity Arabian books; they amass whole libraries of them at a vast cost, and they everywhere sing the praises of Arabian lore. On the other hand, at the mention of Christian books they disdainfully protest that such works are unworthy of their notice. The pity of it! Christians have forgotten their own tongue, and scarce one in a thousand can be found able to compose in fair Latin a letter to a friend! But when it comes to writing Arabic, how many there are who can express themselves in that language with the greatest elegance, and even compose verses which surpass in formal correctness those of the Arabs themselves!”

The fact that the non-Muslim inhabitants preferred Arabic instead of their own languages made it inevitable that the impact of Arabic on the Spanish Romance languages would be tremendous. Arabic words began to move into the Spanish dialects, especially in the scientific and technical fields.

This borrowing did not enter the Spanish and later the other European languages only by chance or due to an enchantment with the Arabic tongue, but as a result of European Christians trying to emulate Arabic culture – the uppermost in the world of that era. Year after year the borrowing of these words gathered momentum until the time when Arab culture in Spain began to decay.

The sacred language of Islam was very well suited to imparting its words to other languages. Titus Burckhardt in his book The Moorish Culture in Spain explains:

“Languages tend to become poorer, not richer, with time, and the original character of the Arabic language, unworn by time, reveals itself in its very wealth of words and immense range of expressions. It can describe one object with different words and from different aspects, and possesses words in which different, allied concepts are condensed, without ever being illogical. This equivocal aspect of Arabic in the most positive sense of the word, is without doubt what makes it so appropriate as a holy tongue. …According to Ibn Khaldun, Arabic is a perfect language because it can not only be declined and conjugated, but because the “what” and the “how” can be derived from an action – in other words, nouns and adjectives can be derived from the verbs. However, this is possible only because in Arabic, the “doing” verbs are far more comprehensive than, say, in English. Much of what we tend to express by using an adjective in conjunction with the verb “to be”, such as “to be beautiful”, “to be inside”, “to be outside”, is expressed in a single verb in Arabic.”

From the tenth century onward Arabic words and terms entered the Spanish dialects on a massive scale. This rich vocabulary of Arabic words was a great stimulant in the evolution of European thought. When, in Toledo, after its re-conquest by the Christians, Arabic works were translated into the European languages, Christian thinking was revolutionized and Europe was put on the path to advancement.

There is no doubt that many Arabic words entered numerous European languages after these translations. Although, through the centuries, western historians have been reluctant to admit this great role the Arabs had in the evolution of Christian Europe, Arabic words in European languages indicate that this contribution was considerable.

Today, in spite of the fact that after the re-conquest the Spaniards tried to cleanse the Arabic words from their language, over 8,000 words and over 2,300 place-names remain. However, Spanish and the other European languages were not the only ones enriched by Arabic. Many other languages, especially in Muslim lands, are saturated with Arabic words. 57% of Pushto, 42% of Urdu and 30% of Persian can be traced back to the language of the Qur‘an.

Although Spain was the principal point of the Arab impact, Arab influences also spread to Europe from Sicily after its conquest and Arabization. In addition, the Crusaders returning from the civilized Arab East brought back to the Europe of the Dark Ages many new products and ideas. After these soldiers of the cross, returned, English and other European languages were

enriched with numerous words, in the fields of architecture, agriculture, food, manufacturing, the sciences and trade. There is no doubt that many of the Arabic loanwords in the languages of Europe had their origin in the vocabulary of these returning warriors.

Indeed, it was only natural that the borrowing of words would travel from east to west since in that epoch the Muslim lands the most advanced in the world. In the same fashion today, English being the language of industry and science, its words creep into foreign tongues, so it was with Arabic in the era of the Crusades.

All of the northern Europeans took part in these religious conflicts. In the main, the crusaders made their wars in the Middle East but sometimes they unsheathed their swords in Sicily and Spain. In any case, wherever these soldiers of the cross had contact with the Muslims, they always became familiar with new products produced in the richer Arab lands.

As the taste for these products grew, merchants travelled to the Arab lands for trade. Hence, both merchants and warriors were instrumental in the transmission of Arabic words into the European idioms.

English was one of the European languages that received an inflow of words from this early contact with Spain, Sicily and the Arab East. From these lands it was a continuing process, the flowing in of new words.

Later, among others, French and Portuguese were instrumental, as a medium, in some of the transmissions. From the 18th to the 20th century, when Great Britain expanded its empire to the four corners of the world, numerous other words entered English by way of Africa, the Middle East and India. Even with the end of 20th century colonialism, the inflow of words did not come to a halt, but has continued until the present day.

This process of borrowing Arabic words which began in the early Middle Ages has done much to enrich the language of Shakespeare. If, today, we leaf through the English dictionaries, we will find that words of Arabic origin are found, here and there, under every letter of the alphabet. It may surprise many that a study made by some scholars of the Skeats Etymological Dictionary found that Arabic is the seventh on the list of languages that has contributed to the enrichment of the English vocabulary. Only Greek, Latin, French, German, Scandinavian and the Celtic group of languages have contributed more than Arabic to the English idiom.

There are over 3,000 basic words, along with perhaps some 4,000 derivatives, of Arabic origin or transmitted through Arabic in the English language. Although many of these words are rarely used today, some even obsolete, they nevertheless are found in English dictionaries. However, the Arabic derived words in the working tongue are not insignificant.   There are some 500 words that impregnate our everyday speech.

These Arabic-loan words employed in the everyday vocabulary indicate that in almost all areas the Arabs contributed to the English way of life. Some examples of these common words with their Arabic origin will give an insight into this contribution.


We find Arabic words or Arabic transmitted words in all facets of European life. In English:

  • in architecture we have: alcove (al-qubbah), ogive (al-jubb) and baroque (burqah);
  • in the abode of animals and birds: albatross (al-qadus), camel (jamal), gazelle (ghazal), giraffe (zarafah), jerboa (yarbu), monkey (maymum), nacre (naqqarah), popinjay (babbagha’), and tuna (tun);
  • in the clothing and fabric trade: caftan (quftan), camlet (khamlah), chiffon (shaff), cotton (qutn), fustian (Fustat), gauze (Ghazzah), jupe (jubbah), macrame (miqramah), mohair (mukhayyar), muslin (musil), sandal (sandal), sash (shash), satin (zaytuni), tabby (‘attaabi’) and taffeta (tafata);
  • in the field of chemicals, colors and minerals: alkali (al-gili), amalgam (al-jama’), antimony (al-uthmud), arsenic (al-zirnikh), azure (lazaward), bismuth (uthmud), borax (bawraq), camphor (kafur), cinnabar (zinjafr), carmine (girmizi), crimson (qirmiz), elixir (al-iksir), gypsum (jibs), kale (qili), lacquer (lakk), musk (misk), myrrh (murr), natron (natrun) realgar (rahj al-ghar), scarlet (siqillat), soda (suda’), talc (talq) and zircon (zarqun);
  • in the area of food and drink: alcohol (al-kuhl), apricot (al-barquq), artichoke (al-khurshuf, arrack (‘araq), banana (banan), candy (qand), cane (qanah), caramel (qanah), caraway (karawya), carob (kharrub), coffee and cafe (qahwah), cumin (kammun), jasmine (yasmin), julep (julab), kabab or kabob (kabab), lemon, lemonade and lime (laymun), mocha (mukha – port city in Yemen), orange (naranj), saffron (za’faran), salep (tha’lab), sesame (simsim), sherbet (sharbah), sherry (Sherish – the Arab name of the city of Jerez de la Frontera in Andalusia), spinach (isbanakh), sugar (sukkar – borrowed by nearly every language in Europe), sumach (summaq), syrup (sharab), tamarind (tamr hindi), tangerine (Tanjah – Arab name for Tangiers, Morocco), tarragon (tarkhun), tumeric (kurkum), and tuna (tun);
  • In the sphere of geography and navigation: admiral (amir al-bahr), alhambra (al-hamra), canal (qanah), Gibraltar (Jabal Tariq), monsoon (mawsim), safari (safarah), sahara (Sahara sahra’), saracen (sharqiyin), Trafalgar (taraf al-ghar), typhoon (tufan), xebec (shabbak) and Zanzibar (Zanjibar);
  • in home and daily life: adobe (al-tab), cable (habl), calabash (khirbiz or qar’a(t) yabisah), carafe (gharafa), carboy (qirbah), divan (diwan), genius (jinn), hazard (al-zahr), jar (jarrah), kismet (gismah), massage (massa’), mattress (matrah), mulatto (muwallad), nabob and Nob Hill (na’ib), ottoman (‘uthman) and sofa (suffah);
  • in music and song: fret (fard), guitar (qitar), hocket (iqa’at), lute (‘ud ), tabor and tambour (tanbur), timbal (tabl) and troubadour (tarab al-dar);
  • in the theatre of the macabre (magbarah): assassin (hashashin), ghoul (ghul), mafia (mu’afi), mumy (mumiya’) and massacre (maslakh);
  • in the realm of personal adornment: amber (‘anbar), attar (‘atr), cameo (chumahan), civit (zabad), henna (hinna’), lapis lazuli (lazaward), mask and mascara (maskharah), sequin (sikkah) and talisman (tilasm);
  • in the world of plants: alfalfa (al-fisfisah), anil (al-nil), crocus (kurkurn), hashish (hashish), lilac (laylak), and safflower (asfar);
  • in science and mathematics: almanac (al-manakh), alchemy (al-kimiya’), alembic (al-inbig), algebra (al-jabr), algorism (al-khuwarizmi), average (‘awar), calibre (qalib), carat (qirat), chemistry (al-kimiya’) and both cipher and zero (sifr);
  • in the domain of the heavens: auge (‘awj), azimuth (al-samt), nadir (nazir), zenith (samt al-ra’s) and the stars: Aldebaran (al-dabaran), Achernar (akhir al-nabr), Algol (al-ghul), Alphard (al-fard), Altair (al-ta’ir), Betelgeuse (bayt al-jawza’), Deneb (dhanab), Fomalbaut (fam al-hat), Menkar (minkhar), Merak (marikh al-dubb), Mizar (mi’zar), Rigel (rijl) and Vega (al-nisr al-waqi’);
  • in the arena of sports: racket (rah) and tennis (tinnis); and
  • in trade and commerce: arsenal (dar al-sina’ah), bazaar (bazar), cafe (qahwah), cheque (sakk), dragoman (turjuman), magazine (makhzan), ream (rizmah), tare (tarhah), traffic (tafriq) and tariff (ta’rifah).

The Arabic-loan words themselves are only one aspect of the Arabic impact on English. In addition, there are numerous English words and terms that are a literal translation of the Arabic. Amygdala is a direct rendering of the Arabic al-lawzatan; dura mater and pia mater are versions of al-‘umm al-sulbah and ‘umm raqiqah respectively; primum mobile is literally al-muharrak al-‘awwal; sine is the English version of jayb; and surd is a rendering of jadbr asamm.

All the Arabic contributions as reflected in the Arabic-loan words had an impact on western society, but the introduction of the Arabic numerals with the decimal system revolutionized life itself. There is no question that before their use became prevalent in Europe, the clumsy Roman numerals had retarded the evolution of mathematics. Between the 13th and 17th century, Latin Europe became gradually acquainted with Arabic numerals. This was mostly accomplished through the trade between the Christian and Islamic worlds.

However, it took five long centuries before Christian Europe would fully accept these numerals, introduced by the Arabs – the custodians of the knowledge of antiquity. However, when they were accepted, Europe left the dark ages behind.

The translation of the works of Al-Khuwarizmi – the greatest of Arab mathematicians who invented algebra; Jabir ibn Aflah of Seville; Masluma al-Majriti, whose name is taken from the Arabic name for Madrid (Majrit); and others in the 12th and 13th centuries, by Adelard of Bath, Robert of Chester, Gerhard of Cremona and Johannes Campanus, was instrumental in putting Europe on the road to progress.

Another field of Arabic contributions that has been barely explored are the English words, not generally considered of Arabic origin but which could be derived from, or transmitted through, Arabic. They are numbered in the hundreds.

These examples with their possible Arabic origin will tantalize a researcher seeking the true roots of words: baboon (maymum), balsam (balasan), buckram (abu qiram), caravan (the Persian qanirawan, through Arabic) and risk (rizq). These are only a few the list is endless.

Viewed in the context of contribution of other tongues to the English language, Arabic, in the past, has had an impressive record. However, this contribution has not stopped; t . In the last few years some of the Arabic words that have entered the language of Shakespeare are: Ayatollah, ayat-Allah, Hezbollah or Hizballah – hizb Allah, hummus – hummus, intifada – intifada, have become part of the English vocabulary.

In light of the sample of words, which have been considered, it becomes clear that Arabic, in the past and to a much lesser degree at present, has contributed and is continuing to contribute, although on a smaller scale, to the advancement of mankind. This makes it quite evident that a language which the Arabs and, in fact, all Muslims, consider to be ‘the language of paradise’ will continue its worldly role.