Arabic in Middle English


Jessica Wilson


copyright 2001



Arabic culture and influence in medieval Europe:


     By the eighth century in North Africa, Arabic had ousted Latin as the dominant language; by the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Arabic civilization had fully spread through Spain.  In fact, even by 724, John, bishop of Seville, was translating the Bible into Arabic (Metlitzki 5).  This Muslim conquest of the mainland influenced medieval European scholars who began to take an interest in Arabic learning, most notably in mathematics and astronomy.  Adelard of Bath (c.1080 – c.1150) travelled to mainland Europe from England in order to study Arabic learning; he translated into Latin the astronomical tables of Al-Khwarizmi.  Soon many scholars were in search of Arabic treatises to translate, and “Arabum studia” became a legitimate pursuit in twelfth century England.  In fact, by the mid 1600’s, the scholar Edward Pococke, author of Specimen of the history of the Arabs, held the Laudian chair in Arabic at Oxford University, while Gerard Langbaine, Keeper of the Archives of the University, was in charge of the University’s Arabic type (Burnett 81).



Arabic words loaned indirectly into Middle English across all semantic fields:


     Apart from scholarly interest in the sciences, the Arabic and Western European cultures were in close contact thanks to the Crusades and merchant trade.  Foreign food, spices, clothing, and games began to move North and West.  Not surprisingly, Middle English loaned most of its Arabic words through French since French was the language of the educated class in England; there was also more contact between France and England than between England and the Arabs.  Hence, military terms loaned into Middle English are mostly derived from the French word for the Arabic word.  Barbican comes to Middle English (c. 1300) through Old French barbicane, perhaps a corruption of the Arabic or Persian word barbakh/barbar + khanah, a house or guard on the wall (Cannon and OED).

      Similarly, a loanword relating to commerce, average, enters Middle English (1200) from Old French avarie through Old Italian avaria from Arabic ‘awāriyah; the word originally meant “damaged merchandise on ship-transported goods” (Cannon) and later “duty charged upon goods” (OED).  Spices imported through Northern Italy brought cumin  and caraway (c. 13th cent. indirectly from Arabic karawya).  Cumin turns up c. 897, through Old English, Latin and Greek; the Greek kuminon “is supposed to have been a foreign word, cognate in origin with the Semitic names [Hebrew kammôn and Arabic kammûn] and their cognates” (OED).  Saffron (borrowed from Old French safran, from Arabic za‘ farān) eventually took root—both plant and word—in England (Bennett 46).  The first use of the word occurs in the Trinity College Homilies c. 1200:  Hire wimpel wit oðer maked zeleu mid saffran (“her wimple white, or made yellow with saffron”) (Serjeantson 214).

      The word admiral appears c.1205, possibly borrowed from the Old French amiral or directly from Arabic amir al, meaning “commander of” (Freeborn 148).  As Freeborn points out, “loan-words taken directly into English from Arabic are not in evidence until the late 16th century” (148).



Transmission and Transformation of Arabic Words:


     In Old English, the earliest known Arabic loanword is ealfara, meaning “pack-horse.”  According to Breeze, it derives ultimately from the Hispano-Arabic word al-faras (“the horse”) (15).  The word “has been recorded once only:  in the eleventh century Letter of Alexander to Aristotle,” and a similar word (as auferan) exists in Old French (Serjeantson 214).  As Serjeantson notes, “it is possible that French [borrowing through Arabic] was the immediate source of the English word” (214), but Breeze disagrees.  The translator of Alexander’s Letter to Aristotle may have known the word ealfara from an independent Spanish source (Breeze 17).  The complexities of the argument surrounding this word—as sources are traced and suppositions made—reveal how difficult, uncertain and artificial etymologies can be.  The “source” of a word in Old English or Middle English might too easily be given a simple “origin” which disregards other unknown influences; this is especially true with words that appear to derive from Arabic since Arabic-speakers were interacting more frequently with speakers of the Romance and Semitic languages.  It is often hard to tell (as with ealfara) which source was responsible for the word’s appearance in English.  (Were the French borrowing from Spanish or Arabic?)  Furthermore, the Arabic “source words” are themselves often borrowed from Persian or Greek.  This proviso must be kept in mind when discussing Arabic lexical influence.

     Nevertheless—disregarding its exact etymology—the word ealfara neatly illustrates the tendency, in early French, Spanish, and Middle English, to adapt the sound of a word without knowledge of its meaning in Arabic.  The definite article “al” means “the” in Arabic but Middle English (borrowing through French, Spanish, or another language) preserves the article in the loanword.  Thus albatross (1564) was originally al-ghattas.  Sometimes the article is elided and the “a” drops off; thus lute (13th cent) comes from Old French lut which is itself from the Arabic al-ud (“the oud”).  The oud is transformed into a lute due to this unwitting adoption of the Arabic article.  In words such as elixir (1266), the “al” in the Arabic al-’iksir is transformed into “el” and becomes part of the word’s meaning.

     Of the words borrowed into Middle English from Arabic sources, the majority are nouns and adjectives (Cannon 95).  Certain proper nouns such as the names of the stars (Algol and Alnath in the late 14th century) make their way into Middle English thanks to the scholarly interest in translating astral treatises.  The prophet Muhammad’s name appears as Mahomet and Mahound in c. 1205; this English pejorative rendering equates the prophet with a false god since the word means “idol” in English.  Furthermore, ma- is a negative Arabic prefix, thus the English spellings Mahomet and Mahound are disliked by Muslims.  (Oxford Companion to the English Language 79).  Muhammad, the unbiased orthographic rendering of the Arabic word, appears around 1615.



Chaucer’s use of Arabic words:


     Of canonized authors, Chaucer was the first to use twenty-four new loanwords from Arabic (loaned primarily through French).  According to Cannon’s Historical Dictionary, no other British author of the Medieval or Renaissance period (including Shakespeare) employed an Arabic loanword for the first time.  Chaucer, however, was deeply interested in medieval science and philosophy (Metlitzki 73) and used such learning in his literary works, including his “Treatise on the Astrolabe” composed in 1391. 

     Arabic loanwords first recorded in Chaucer’s works include: 

            - (of astronomy) Almagest, almanac, almucantar, almury, Alnath, nadir

- (of chemistry) alkali, azimuth, borax, tartar, amalgam (as a verb)

- (of clothing) satin, gipon

- (of the military) lancegay, jupon

- (of games) fers, checkmate

- (miscellaneous)  Damask, Sarsenish, fen, Arabic, ribibe, carrack, dulcarnon

     The popularity of the game of chess is evident from Chaucer’s use of both the interjection “checkmate” and the noun “fers.”  In “Troilus and Criseyde,” Chaucer makes no overt reference to the game when he has Criseyde announce her determination not to remarry:  “Shal noon housbonde seyn to me ‘Chek mat!’” (2:754).  However, in his earlier poem, “The Book of the Duchess,” Chaucer explicitly mentions chess before he introduces the new word “fers” as the name for the queen chess piece.  The Black Knight imagines that he has lost a chess game with Fortune: 

At the ches with me she gan to pleye;

With hir false draughtes dyvers

She stal on me and tok my fers

And whan I sawgh my fers awaye

Allas, I kouthe no lenger playe. (651-56)

Etymologically, the interjection checkmate comes from the Arabic and Persian shah mat, meaning “the king is dead.”  The word fers derives ultimately from the Arabic word firzan, meaning “wise man or counsellor” (OED).  Incidentally, the word chess—appearing first (according to the OED) around 1300 in the Cursor Mundi—is a Middle English adoption of the Old French word for the plural of “check”:  esches (the initial e is dropped in English).  In Chaucer’s use of words like fers and checkmate (new to Middle English), we can see the gradual emergence of Arabic influence—in both culture and language—within medieval England and Middle English.





For Further Reading


Social and Literary History:


Burnett, Charles.  The Introduction of Arabic Learning into England. The Panizzi

Lectures.  London:  The British Library, 1997.


French, Roger.  “Arabic Astrology and English Medicine in the Late Twelfth Century.”

Isis 87 (1996):  453-80.


Lasater, Alice E.  Spain to England:  A Comparative Study of Arabic, European, and

English Literature of the Middle Ages.  Jackson:  University Press of

Mississippi, 1974.


Meisami, Julie Scott.  “Arabic Culture and Medieval European Literature”  Journal of

the American Oriental Society.  3:2 (1991): 343-51.  A book review of Maria Rosa Menocal’s The Arabic Role in Medieval Literary Theory:  A Foreign Heritage (1987).  The article neatly summarizes the history of critical views on Arabic literary influence.


Metlitzki, Dorothee.  The Matter of Araby in Medieval England.  New Haven and

London:  Yale University Press, 1977.




Lexical Studies and Reference Books:


Allen, Richard Hinckley.  Star-names and their meanings.  New York: 

G. E. Stechert, 1899.


Bennett, Martin.  “Artichokes and sequins:  the legacy of Arabic”  English Today 33: 9

(January 1993): 45-48.


Breeze, Andrew.  “Old English Ealfara, ‘Pack-Horse’:  A Spanish-Arabic Loanword”

Notes and Queries.  March (1991): 15-17.


Cannon, Garland.  The Arabic Contributions to the English Language:  An Historical

Dictionary.  Wiesbaden:  Harrassowitz Verlag, 1994.  Extremely useful.  Includes

a list of the dictionary words arranged chronologically according to their entry into English.


Kaye, Alan S.  “The etymology of coffee:  the dark brew.”  Journal of the American

Oriental Society.  106 (1986): 557-58.


___­_.               ”Orthographic variation in Arabic loan words.”  English Today 8.2

(1992):  32-41.


Mitchell, James.  Significant Etymology, or Roots, Stems, and Branches of the English

Language.  Edinburgh and London:  Blackwood, 1908.  Unreliable but

historically revealing studies of words (including medieval Arabic loanwords).


Serjeantson, Mary S. A History of Foreign Words in English. (1935)  London: Routledge

and Kegan Paul, 1961.  See particularly Chapter 10 “Loanwords From the East