Arabic influences in the Portuguese language: do you know the origin?

The invasion of the Moors on the Iberian Peninsula did not only bring scientific progress, but also a lot of influence in the Portuguese culture and language.

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The Portuguese language derives from Latin dialects that were spoken by soldiers of the Roman Empire during the occupation of the Iberian Peninsula. From those dialects emerged the so-called "latim vulgar" and later today's Portuguese. However, the roots of Portuguese can not only be found in the Latin language. In this article we'll talk about the Arabic influences.

The Moorish Invasion began in 711 and did not end until the end of the 15th century. The Moors lived in today's region of Morocco and Western Algeria. They converted to Islam after contact with Arabs from the Middle East who were spreading the word of their prophet Mohammed.

The Moors left a considerable cultural heritage on the Iberian Peninsula, especially as they had been the scientific pioneers of their era. Many Arabic words have been adapted in the Portuguese language due to the fact that it had been the Moors who introduced certain knowledge, customs, objects and techniques and there were no corresponding words in Portuguese. 



Words with Arabic origin in the Portuguese language

According to the author of the book "Léxico Português de Origem Árabe" (Lexicon of Portuguese words with Arabic origin), João Batista Vargens, there are 17 semantic fields in the Portuguese language with Arabic influence: public administration, war, social life and relations, private life, rural and urban nomenclature, flora, natural resources, fauna, agriculture, weights, measurements and mathematics, commerce and industry, dynasty and ethnicity, colors, adjectives, grammatical instruments, verbs and greetings.

You can say that the Arabic influences in the Portuguese language are more from a lexical angle rather than structural. We've put together the most obvious aspects of this influence.

  • Most nouns start with the definite article al (in Portuguese o or a), mostly with adapted l to the first consonant of the noun if it is a sun letter.
  • The Arabic alphabet has two groups of consonants. They are divided into solar and moon consonants.
  • A moon letter at the beginning of a word doesn't have any influence on the pronunciation of the letter l from the article al, e.g. "alferes" (the horseman), "almeida" (the table) or "alcântara" (the bridge).
  • As mentioned above, if the l from al is followed by a sun letter the following consonant is doubled. E. g. "azeite" (live oil) in Arabic is written "alzeite" but pronounced as "azzeite". This is the origin of words like "azulejo" (tile), "açorda" (traditional soup) or "atalaia" (an elevated place).
  • Other words with Arabic origin are words starting with an x (xadrez (chess), xarope (sirup) or xerife (sharif)) or with enx (enxaqueca (migrain), enxoval (endowment) or enxofre (sulfur)).
  • Some words are characterized by their ending, like with an i (javali (wild boar) or mufti (mufti)), an il (cordovil (type of olive tree), mandil (apron) or anil (indigo blue)) or im (alecrim (rosemary), carmesim (carmine) or cetim (satin)) and words ending with afe or aque ( alcadafe (measuring jug) or almanaque (almanac)).

Some Arabic consonants didn't stick in the Portuguese vocabulary because they just didn't fit in the language's pronunciation, e. g. the letter h which mostly is exchanged with an f, like in "alfama" (asylum, from the Arabic alhammam), "alfazema" (lavender, from the Arabic alhuzaima) or "alface" (salad, from the Arabic alhassa).

Most people don't know about the Arabic origin of words as they have been in the Portuguese vocabulary since the Middle Ages. At the same time, immigrants from Syria or Lebanon have difficulties recognizing Arabic words due to the strong phonetic changes over time.

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Thank you for your time!

Wilgen and the alugha team!


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