IMPACT OF THE ARABIC LANGUAGE AND CULTURE ON ENGLISH
THE OTHER EUROPEAN LANGUAGES
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.
men 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 which was to be mankind’s pathfinder for
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.
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
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
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 landsbeing closely cross-examined on
the use and meaning of a particular word found only in the guest’s
Islam was established and moved out of its Arabian homeland, Arabic
was the language which 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.
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’n is Arabic; and the
language of Paradise is Arabic.”
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’.
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, molded in that century of Arab greatness.
our times, it is the only tongue in world where an ordinary person,
even Arabs who are semi- educated, can pick up a
of poetry written in the 6th century and understand its contents.
All of the anients languages have either died out or have
vastly changed, and all other languages came into existence long
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 cur day English opens the door to technical and scientific
advancement for ambitious men and women.
these centuries more works were produced in Arabic at that time 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.
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
less than a century even the Christians living under Muslim rule
became so proficient in Arabic that they neglected their own
tongues. R. Dozy in Spanish
Islam indicates 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, who deplores this
fact with these words:
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 Arabic language was being preferred over
their own language by the non-Muslim inhabitants made it inevitable
that the impact of Arabic on the Spanish Romance languages would be
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
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.”
the tenth century onwards 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
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.
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 tongues enriched by Arabic.
Many other languages, specially 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.
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
with numerous words in the fields of architecture, agriculture,
food, manufacturing, the sciences and trade.
There is no doubt that many of the Arabic loan-words in the
languages of Europe had their origin in the vocabulary of these
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.
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.
was one of the European languages which 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.
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 after colonialism was no more, the inflow of words did
not come to a halt, but has continued until the present day.
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 to be found, here and there,
under every letter of the alphabet.
It will surprise many to know that some scholars have made a
study of the Skeats
Dictionary and found that Arabic is the seventh on the list of
languages that has contributed to the enrichment of the English
Only Greek, Latin, French, German, Scandinavian and the
Celtic group of languages have contributed more than Arabic to the
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, they nevertheless are to be
found in the English dictionaries.
There is no doubt that they have become English words and are
employed in some aspect of the language.
However, the Arabic derived words in the working tongue are
not insignificant. There
are some 500 words which impregnate our everyday speech.
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.
find Arabic words or Arabic transmitted words in all facets of
European life. In
architecture we have: alcove (al-qubbah), ogive (al-jubb) and
the abode of animals and birds: albatross (al-qadus), camel (jamal), gazelle
(ghazal), giraffe (zarafah), jerboa (yarbu), monkey (maymum), nacre
(naqqarah), popinjay (babbaghgha’), and tuna (tun);
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;
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);
the area of food and drink: alcohol (al-kuhl); apricot (l-barquq),
artichoke, (al-khurshuf), arrack (caraq),
banana (banan), candy (qand), cane (qand),
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), 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 of Europe from Arabic), sumach (summaq),
syrup, (sharab), tangerine (tanjah) and tarragon (tarkhun);
the sphere of geography and navigation: admiral (Amir al-bahr), alhambra (al-hamra),
canal (qanah), Gibraltar (Jabal Tariq), monsoon (mawsim), safari (safarah),
sahara (Sahara), saracen (sharqiyin ), Trafalgar (Taraf al-ghar),
typhoon (tufan), xebec shabbak) and Zanzibar (Zanjibar);
the home and daily life: adobe (al-tab), cable (habl), calabash (khirbiz),
carafe (gharafa), carboy (qirbah), divan (diwan), genius (jinn),
jar (jarrah), kismet (gismah), massage (massa=,
mattress (matrah), mulatto (muwallad), nabob and Nob Hill (na=ib),
ottoman (uthman) and sofa (suffah);
the land of music and song: fret (fard), guitar (qitar), hocket (iqaat),
lute (ud ), tabor and tambour (tanbur), timbal (tabl) and troubadour
the theatre of the macabre (magbarah): assassin (hashashin), ghoul (ghul), mafia (mu
afi), mumy (mumiya=) and massacre (maslakh);
the realm of personal adornment: amber (anbar), attar (atr), cameo (chumaban),
civit (zabad), henna (hinna=),
lapis lazuli (lazaward), mask and mascara (maskharah), sequin (sikkah)
and talisman (tilasm);
the world of plants: alfalfa (al-fisfisah), anil (al-nil), apricot (al-barquq),
carob (kharrub), crocus (kurkurn), hashish (hashish), lemon and lime
(laymun), jasmine (yasmin), lilac (laylak), orange (naranj),
safflower (asfar) and tamarind (tamr hindi);
the technical confines of 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);
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
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=);
the arena of sports: racket (rah) and tennis (tinnis); and
trade and commerce: arsenal (dar al-sinaah), bazaar (bazar), cafe (qahwah),
cheque (sakk), dragoman (turjuman), magazine (makhzan), ream (rizmah),
tare (tarhah), traffic (tafriq) and tariff (tarifah).
Arabic-loan words themselves are only one aspect of the Arabic
impact on English. In addition, there are numerous English words and
terms which 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
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
the 13th and 17th century, Latin Europe became gradually acquainted
with Arabic numerals. This
was mostly accomplished through the trade between the Christian and
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.
translation of the works of Al-Khuwarizmi - the greatest of Arab
mathematician 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
field of Arabic contributions which 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.
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.
in the context of contribution of other tongues to the English
language, Arabic, in the past, has had impressive record.
However, even in our times this contribution has not stopped.
The flow of Arabic words into English continues .
In the last few years some of the Arabic words that have
entered the language of Shakespeare are: Ayatollah, from the Arabic ayat-Allah,
burghul or burghal - burghul; couscous - kuskus;
falafel - filafil, fatwa - fatwa, halvah - halawa,
Hezbollah or Hizballah - hizb Allah,
hummus - hummus, intifada - intifada,
al-Jazeera - al-jazira, kibbe or kibbeh - kubbah,
leban - laban, shish kebab B shish kabab,
al-Qaida or al-Qaeda - al-Qiyada, taboula - tabbulah,
and Taliban or Tallaban - Taliban, have become part of
the English vocabulary.
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.