Spain through the looking glass

Arabic legacy lives on in Spain

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Yesterday, December 18, was UNESCO’s first ever World Arabic Language Day.

“By celebrating the Arabic language, we are acknowledging the tremendous contribution of its writers, scientists and artists to universal culture,” said Director-General of UNESCO Irina Bokova in a statement marking the occasion.


The Emirates Airlines logo is of one of the most widely recognised example of Arabic calligraphy in the world today.

Arabic has played a small but not insignificant role in the development of the Spanish language via the Muslim occupation of the Iberian Peninsula. From 711 to 1492, many regions of modern-day Portugal and Spain were ruled by dynasties and emirates whose origins lay in the Maghreb.

That 800-year period was one of great scientific and cultural energy in southern Spain with Christian, Jewish and Muslim scholars engaged in an open dialogue the likes of which have rarely been seen since.

Traces of Muslim Spain can still be found in modern day Spanish with some 1,000 words of classical Arabic origin present in the language. Some key examples include: azúcar (sugar); alcalde (or mayor, from the Arabic qāḍī, meaning judge); aceituna (āz-zeitūna, or olive); algodón (cotton); cero (the number ‘zero’ from the Arabic ṣifr, meaning empty); alalǧabru (algebra); zanahoria (carrot) and ajedrez (chess).

Various Iberian place names also have Arabic origins. The name Gibraltar comes from the Arabic Jabal-ı Tārıq, orthe hill of Tariq, which is named after the Moorish general Tariq ibn-Ziyad who was one of the advance guard of the Moorish force that entered southern Spain in 711.

Meanwhile, Wikipedia tells us that the name for Madrid is derived from original Arabic name al-MagrīT, meaning source of water, and the name for the Guadalquivir river (al-wādĩ al-kabi) simply means big river.

According to UNESCO, Arabic is currently the official language of 22 of its Member States and has more than 422 million speakers in the Arab world while being used by more than 1.5 billion Muslims globally.


An example of zoomorphic Arabic calligraphy from the Sudanese artist Hassan Musa.


Written by georgemills25

December 19, 2012 at 18:44

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