Gifts from the East

I started my morning with a little dose of Arabic; I put sugar (Sp. el azúcar) in my tea and wiped my face with a cotton (Sp. el algodón) pad.

Usually when I notice that words have similar forms in Spanish and English, it’s a fairly safe bet to assume that they both come ultimately from a common Latin root, even if the English word may have waltzed in from French or another romance language. (Although somehow I suspect the French words sashayed* in, rather than waltzing.) In the case of sugar/azúcar and cotton/algodón, that’s not true. They have another common ancestor—Arabic.

Language is often spread when empires grow (generally through invasion, but let’s not stray into the political). In the case of Spanish, the Moorish (i.e., Arab) occupation of the Iberian Peninsula lasted nearly 800 years, from the early 8th to the late 15th century. For much of that time, I suspect the Moors just called it “living there,” but the Spaniards never saw it that way. Their culture survived, absorbing along the way many Arabic influences in language, cuisine, and architecture.

There are tons of Arabic-root words in Spanish, and when you see that the first syllable is “al,” that typically indicates Arabic origin. “Al” was then, as it is now, the definite article. You probably encounter this article almost every day, when you hear in the news about Al-Qaeda (Ar. the base) or Al Jazeera (Ar. the island). In Spain, that fluffy white substance, al godón, (whatever the Arabic form of the word was at the time) was adopted as el algodón. To this day, it carries around that double definite article. We don’t see the full article in “azúcar,” but the article particle (!) remains.

The English words “sugar” and “cotton” came to us from the Arabic via Italian, from which they were adopted by French, and finally into English. It was a circuitous route through history and geography, but well worth the wait for soft sheets and sweet treats. It makes me wonder, though. If we had somehow incorporated “sugar” into our language but not “cotton,” what we would call cotton candy?

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*from Fr. chassé, a slide-jump move in ballet

About Verla

Wordfreak. Linguist. WA State licensed P.I. #3377. Principal, Viera Investigations. Spanish-English interpreter. Sole proprietor, Encanto Language Services. Erstwhile librarian. Texan by birth, cheesehead by upbringing, latina by soul, PacNWer by choice. Jewelry artist, Different Drummer Designs. Owner, world’s most gigantic dachshund. Driver, world’s almost smallest car. Chocoholic. Lover of things purple.
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3 Responses to Gifts from the East

  1. Sue says:

    Asbestos candy.

  2. Michael says:

    Don’t forget….
    alcohol
    alfombra
    alcalde
    alternativa
    alhambra
    altitude
    alternativa
    allstar
    alert

    Now you just have to decide which of these I meant seriously and which are not so serious.

    • Verla says:

      This gives me some ideas for other posts. Like, groups of words that all have something in common except for one or two of the words, can you pick them out? Or, an April Fool’s Day post with totally bogus etymologies or word relationships. Hmmm…

      Thanks for stopping by, Michael!