Strolling through some exotic bazaar in the heart of a Middle Eastern city, listening to the conversations of the locals, the casual French or English speaking visitor is unlikely to be aware just how closely their own tongue is related to the local language.
These visitors can hardly be blamed of course. For anyone but a student of linguistics or an Arabic translation expert, the French and English words borrowed from Arabic have become so corrupted that it’s almost impossible to identify where they came from. Yet there are some 3,000 basic words (in both French and English), plus another 5,000 derivatives of these, which can be traced back to the language of the holy Koran, and as many as 500 of these are commonly used in everyday language.
To understand the influence of Arabic on French and English, we must look back to the 7th century and the spread of Islam as one of the world’s major religions. Arabic, being hugely revered as the language in which God spoke to the prophet Mohammed, spread like wildfire across the Middle East and beyond, as the Islamic armies sought to expand their empire.
Eventually, this empire stretched over many thousands of miles, from the Balkans and the Caucasus, all the way through the Middle East, across North Africa and eventually, up into the Iberian Peninsula. Arabic quickly became the intellectual medium for all scholars, poets and learned men throughout the Islamic world, which at the time was the most powerful empire on the globe.
The diffusion of Arabic vocabulary into the French and English languages actually began in Spain, where the Moors (as the Arabs of the Iberian Peninsula were known) established a network of libraries that contained some 500,000 manuscripts, dwarfing anything available in the rest of Europe. As such, Spanish institutions became something of a Mecca for hundreds of students from France and England wishing to further their learning.
It was in this way that Arabic words slowly crept into the French and English languages, later aided by the English and French translation of hundreds of Arabic language books when Spain and Portugal were recaptured in the Reconquista.
Leafing through a modern day French or English dictionary, it’s possible to find words that derive from Arabic under every single letter of the alphabet. Indeed, studies have shown that Arabic is the sixth most influential language on French and English, after the Greek, Latin, German, Scandinavian and Celtic language groups.
Arabic words have transmitted into just about every aspect of the French and English languages, which have borrowed phrases to do with food and drink, architecture, home and daily life, geography and navigation, mathematics and the sciences, trade and commerce and many more.
Readers can see the huge contribution that Arabic has made to French and English in the following tables:
Food and Drink:
Mathematics and Science:
|al-jabr||break into pieces||l’algèbre||algebra|
|al-kymyaa’||chemistry||l’alchimie; la chimie||alchemy; chemistry|
|wa -shaa’ Allah||God willing||je souhaite||I wish…|
Even in modern times, the diffusion of Arabic into French and English has not stopped, particularly where food and drink is concerned. Such foods as “kebab” and “falafel” are both commonly found in France and the UK today.
These few samples make it clear that Arabic has made an immense contribution to both French and English, and is can be taken as proof that we have much more in common with our neighbors than perhaps we first assumed. The next time you go strolling through some exotic bazaar, keep an ear out for what people are saying – you may just understand more than you realize!