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Is it English or Arabic?

Huge influence of Arab culture in English language

  • By Francis Matthew, Editor at Large
  • Published: 14:13 December 31, 2012
  • Gulf News

  • Image Credit: Dwynn Ronald V. Trazo/©Gulf News

Dubai: What do zero, a giraffe, and alcohol have in common? Not much, other than all these words originate from Arabic, and are part of the huge heritage of language and knowledge that Europe has absorbed from the Arabs over the centuries.

Zero is a version of the Arabic word sifr, and came into English in the 1500s as the concept of a zero made a vast difference to the way people did their arithmetic. Medieval Arabs had not seen many giraffes, which live far to the south in Africa, but the eminent Arab encyclopaedist Al Jawahari included zarafa in his bestiary in the 900s.

Alcohol has been through several transformations before getting to its present inebriating meaning, as it started as al kohl, the fine powder used for beautify the eyes, and then entered Latin in the 1200s as referring to any finely ground material, and then shifted to include an additional meaning of a purified material, or ‘quintessence’ which medieval alchemists (another Arabic loan word!) achieved through distillation, giving its final and modern meaning.

Most of these words came into European languages in the medieval period, as the emerging sophistication of pre-Renaissance Europe borrowed a mass of ideas and concepts from the centuries-old Muslim societies of the Levant, with the Arab Moors in Spain playing a very important role in transmitting documents and books to the thinkers in Europe.

This history means that Arabic loan words in English tend to be in specific categories: for example, there are many scientific terms which come from the deep understanding of these topics written up by the Arab writers of the 800s and 900s. These include words like chemistry (al kimiya), algebra (al jabra), as well as astronomical terms like azimuth (al sumut), nadir (nazir), and zenith (samt al ras), as well as the names of several stars, like Aldebran (al Dabaran, the Follower), and Altair (al Ta’ir, the Flying Eagle) .

A whole range of words come through the maritime dominance of Arab sailors, whose skills were picked up by the early Portuguese and Spanish mariners as they set out to explore beyond the shores of Europe. So words like admiral (amir al bihar – Commander of the Seas); carrack, which is believed to be taken from qaraqir, which is the plural of qurqur, the Arabic for a merchant ship; and magazine, in its meaning as a storehouse, which comes from the Arabic khazan, to store with the prefix ma- which indicates a word of place.

Food and cookery is another large area of transfer of words, as medieval Europe was desperate for the variety offered by the exotic foods and spices of the Arab world. So English acquired words like sugar, which came from the Arabic sukkar, although that in its turn came from further east from a Sanskrit word sharkara. The first reference in English to sugar seems to be in the account books of an abbey Durham in north England, where a shivering scribe recorded the words zuker marok, (Moroccan sugar) in 1302.

Other foods include artichoke (al kharshuf) and apricot (al birquq) although the modern influx of all sorts of overt Arab food like hummus, tahina, and kebab make finding Arabic food in a European supermarket much easier than it would have been in Durham in the 1300s.

Other modern influxes have come from the hundreds of thousands of English servicemen who served in Cairo and the Middle East theatre in the Second World War, and in what was the Crown Colony of Yemen in the 1950s and 1960s. There soldiers learnt to ‘take a shufti’ when they wanted to look at something, coming from the Arabic shuf meaning to look. Indeed, many of the soldiers probably wanted to take a shufti at the bints, which in Cairo in the 1940s meant the less respectable ladies who they might have met on the pavements of that lively city, but bint in Arabic actually just means ‘girl’.

But these modern words are following a much older tradition of borrowing directly from Arabic. Orientalist art and literature in the 1700s and 1800s brought a fascination with the exotic, led by people like the Prince Regent who started his Indo-Saracenic Brighton Pavilion in 1787. These meant that words like harem, henna and hookah became accepted as English words in fairly direct transliterations into English, as fashionable writers and artists started to glorify what they saw as the exotic splendour of the East.


Admiral comes from Amir Al Bihar, meaning Commander of the Seas, which was a first title used in Norman Sicily. The ‘D’ was added in Elizabethan England, by court officials ignorant of Arabic. The French still use amiral.

Giraffe was known to the Arabic lexicographer, Al Jawahiri, as Al Zarafa, which he rather briefly dismissed as “a type of creature’.  Later biologists linked the name more firmly to the long-necked beast of Africa which we all know today.

It’s Arabic

You speak Arabic and you don’t even know it.

There are literally thousands of common words in English that are Arabic in origin.

Beginning tomorrow, we’ll teach you those words every day.

‘It’s Arabic’ will show you the common words that unite us all, daily in Gulf News.

And you can learn their proper Arabic pronunciation by following the links at

Comments (5)

  1. Added 03:19 January 18, 2013

    Much as its great that there's some educational content on Gulf News... I get the feeling that some articles are a bit biased rather than being written objectively. All languages are intrinsically linked as you would expect with cultures who have traded together for thousands of years, to say that English is derived from Arabic is like saying that Arabic is derived from African - that being where humans supposedly originated from, and thus English is derived from one of the various African languages. Equally you could say that the Arabic is derived from Greek or a derivative of Greek - and that English is derived from either Greek or a derivative. To try to claim otherwise is in my opinion a show of either bias or writing to attract readers.... which I guess wouldn't be odd for the media in the current age. There are multiple great civilizations which have grown and disappeared since the formation of language that could all have modern language attributed to them - to look at it the way you are is to hugely simplify it and does a disservice to your readers.

    Adam, London, United Kingdom

  2. Added 09:37 January 8, 2013

    Few more words from Sanskrit to English.... Hrut- Heart Tat - That, Pitru- Father, Matru - Mother, Bratru- Brother, Sasu - Sister, Upara - Upper, upa - Up, Mush - Mouse, Daru Moosha - Dormouse

    Manjunath Kunigal, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

  3. Added 07:57 January 8, 2013

    Some more words: sukkar - Sugar ; qutn - cotton ; maḫāzin - Magazine ; al-kuhūl - Alcohol. I can point some words from Hindi with the same pronunciation and meaning in English. upp-er - Upper brou-g-ht - Brought

    Sudhakar, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

  4. Added 07:27 January 8, 2013

    it is true that greek has influenced english a lot and many other languages as well. and this daily column in gulf news doesnt say otherwise, it is just to highlight the influence of arabic in english no matter how minimal it is! thank you gulf news. keep it up!

    ihsan, dubai, United Arab Emirates

  5. Added 05:26 January 6, 2013

    Arabic does not have as much as an influence in English as Greek, also, Arabic has a lot of words in it that originate from Greek. It's good to point out that Arabic has some influenced some words in the English language, but it's not a big deal when compared to Greek. The English language has more than 50,000 Greek words in it, that is true influence.

    John, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

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