In the early eighth century the Iberian Peninsula was invaded by the Moors who crossed over from North Africa. They rapidly conquered most of the territory, and this initial expansion was followed by eight centuries of gradually diminishing occupation. The invasion brought a very strong Arabic influence to the language of ordinary people, including 4000 separate words of Arabic origin that still exist today. During the height of the Al-Andalus period, Arabic was the dominant language of the country, as it was the language of administration and culture. The influence of the Arabic language on Spanish has been very significant, giving it a distinctive sound and flavour which has lasted to this day. Here are a few examples of Arabic words in modern Spanish: almohada (pillow). aceite (oil), ajedrez (chess), aduana (customs), barrio (neighbourhood), zanahoria (carrot). There are also thousands of place names of Arabic origin, including Madrid which was originally called “Magerit” as well as Mojácar, Benidorm and Albacete.
From the 11th century onwards the Iberian peninsula was split up into many small kingdoms: those ruled by Christians in the north, such as León, Castilla, Aragón and Navarra, which had been gradually expanding southwards; and Taifas, which were the splintered and ever-changing Moorish kingdoms in the south including Denia, Valencia, Badajoz and Málaga. This must have been a very confusing period linguistically, with some areas changing ruler many times. We tend to look at maps which draw clear lines between different kingdoms, but the reality for ordinary people must have been much more muddled. Of the northern kingdoms, Castilla slowly became the most dominant and it was this kingdom that finally managed to push south and take the cities of modern Andalucía. This is why Castilian Spanish is now the most spoken language today, but also why there are many other official languages and dialects across the country, and why Arabic influence is so strong in modern Castilian Spanish both in vocabulary and pronunciation.
In the 13th century a Castilian king called Alfonso X el Sabio (the Wise) had the brilliant idea of rescuing the vast libraries of Arabic, Hebrew and Greek works left by the defeated Moors, and setting up an institution in Toledo called the School of Translators, whose task it was to translate these works into Latin and Spanish. In so doing, Alfonso contributed enormously to the standardisation and prestige of the Castilian language.
Also during this period there were changes in the pronunciation of some of the original Latinate consonant sounds. One of the most significant changes was the initial “f” sound of Latin words, for example “farina” meaning “flour”. This initial consonant gradually moved back in the mouth to create an aspirated “h” which ultimately became a silent letter, even though the letter is conserved in spelling. Consequently, from “farina” in Latin we have “harina” with a silent “h” in modern Spanish. If you think that is strange, the English language contains a vast number of similarly weird and wonderful sound and spelling changes which are far less regular.