Have you ever wondered why so many Spanish nouns begin with “al”? Words like “almohada”, “alfombra”, “alcohol”, “algodón”, “almacén” are always attached to the prefix “al”. If you think it is merely a coincidence, you are completely wrong!
When the Arabs invaded the Iberian Peninsula in 711, they brought along their art, architecture, music and most importantly language. During this time, Spanish and Arabic lived side by side and, due to the difficulty of imposing boundaries on the influence of a language on another, Arabic penetrated the Spanish language profoundly. The Arabic invasion left 4,000 legacy words deeply rooted in the Spanish language. After almost 9 centuries of occupation, it is only natural that Spanish and Arabic became intertwined. Additionally, the names of a lot of Spanish cities such as Cordoba, Madrid, Valladolid, Murcia, Almeria, all retain Arabic roots.
But why exactly do a lot of Spanish nouns begin with “al”?
Basically, “al” is the definite article in the Arabic language. It is used before the noun when we believe the reader/listener knows exactly what we are referring to. Interestingly, Spanish inherited Arabic words with the article included. For example, the Arabic word for “albóndiga” without the article is “bóndiga”. This means that if we use the Spanish article “la” before “albóndiga”, we are basically saying “the the meatball”!
Other languages that use Arabic words excluded the article. For example, the French word for “sugar” is “sucre”, while the Spanish word is “azúcar”. The “a” at the beginning of “azúcar” is another version of “al” with a silent “l”, which means it is also a definite article. Had French followed the same path as Spanish, the word for “sugar” would be “asucre”.
The reason why Spanish maintained the article could be due to the frequency of the use of that particular noun with the article. For example, in Arabic, all materials such as silk, cotton and cashmere are consistently used with the article. As a result, words like “algodón” were embedded in Spanish along with the article. The same rule applies on substances such as “sugar” and “oil”. They are typically used with the definite article and were not, therefore, separated from it when they made their way into the Spanish language.
In that sense, most of Arabic words that were absorbed into Spanish have somewhat been distorted. Apart from the grammatical point of view, it is clear that the two languages have very different pronunciation systems.
That did not stop, however, the echo of the Arabic language from resonating across the Spanish territory even after 500 years. So if you can speak Spanish, you might know many more Arabic words than you think.