Over 500 French words have an Arabic origin

Did you know: Plenty of everyday French words have Arabic origins, including that most typically ‘French’ of drinks, coffee

21 March 2018

French is not only a Latin based language, it also has many words with Arabic origins. Professor Jean Pruvost who teaches lexicography at the University of Cergy-Pontoise has just published a book which places Arabic as the third influence on the French language after English and Italian.

As soon as you wake up, words with Arabic origins will come to mind as you drink a tasse (arab word) of café (arab word) with or without sucre (arab word) and an orange (arab word) juice

Many of these words have also influenced the English language and were spread throughout the Iberian peninsula and into the rest of Europe when the Moors invaded Spain in the 8th century. They held most of it for around 700 years until the last Moorish city, Granada was captured by Ferdinand V and Isabella in 1492.

It is hardly surprising, then, that many of their words crept into European languages. Some come from Arabic place names. Bougie (candle) comes from the wax that was used to make candles imported from Bougie, Algeria. Mousseline (muslin) comes from Mossoul (Mosul in Iraq) and gaze (gauze) from Gaza (now in the Palestinian Gaza Strip). Coton (cotton) also comes from the arab word, qutun.

Many words relate to food and fruits. Abricot (apricot), tamarin (tamarind) and jasmin (jasmine) all come from Arab words.

To celebrate the launch of their new Arabic dictionary, Oxford dictionaries published a list of everyday English words which come from Arabic and traces how they occur in other languages. Thus the zarāfa in Arabic is zürafa in Turkish, girafe in modern French, giraffe in German, giraffa in Italian and giraffe in English. Qahwa in Arabic is kahve in Turkish, kaffee in German, café in French, caffè in Italian and coffee in English.

The Oxford Dictionary lists alcohol as another word which comes from the Arab al-kuhūl. One explanation is that it comes from kohl, the dark powder used as eye make-up, as the very fine powder used originally was made by a vaporising procedure which by extension came to include distillation which produces what we now know as alcohol, or alcool in French.

Professor Pruvost says we can find at least 500 words with Arabic origins in French, and more if you include those which stem from Latin scientific names for animals and plants.

In his book, he points out that they are far more numerous than words of Gallic origins as the language of the race which populated what is now France in the Astérix era was sent into oblivion by the Roman invasion.

He says only around 100 words have survived from that period, and they include ruche, from rusca, a Gallic word meaning bark which the first beehives were made from, chêne (oak) and alouette (lark).

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