The Mozarabic language

In past publications, we have dealt with some of the historical languages of our country that were forged during the Middle Ages, such as, for example, Catalan, Galician, Asturian, Navarrese-Aragonese or Castilian itself. In today’s article, we are going to talk about the Mozarabic language -also called Andalusian Romance-, which designates the set of Romance dialects that were spoken in the territories of the Iberian Peninsula that remained under Muslim rule after the Arab conquest of 711. Unlike the aforementioned languages, Mozarabic has the particularity that it developed in the Muslim territories of al-Andalus and it is believed to have been spoken mainly, although not exclusively, by the Christians who lived there.

The word ‘Mozarabic’, therefore, is used to designate the population of Hispano-Gothic origin, who, consented by Islamic law as tributaries, were able to live in Muslim Spain while preserving their Christian religion. Certainly, this term was not used by the Muslims, but by the Christians of the northern peninsular, to designate the Andalusian Christians who migrated to their territories; this designation, therefore, is evidence that the Mozarabs would have assumed many of the customs of their Arab dominators.

Historical introduction: the Arab domination of the Iberian Peninsula

The Arab invasion of 711 A.D. is a fundamental historical episode in the study of the Spanish and European Middle Ages. The economic, political and social consequences of such an important event will have had a significant impact on the historical development of the Hispanic communities.

The 7th and 8th centuries represent, in the history of Islam, a period of territorial expansion. After conquering all of North Africa, Islamic Berber forces from the Maghreb, led by an Arab tribal contingent, penetrated the Iberian Peninsula, taking advantage of the crisis situation in which the Visigothic kingdom of Toledo was immersed. King Don Rodrigo was defeated in the battle of Guadalete, putting an end to more than two centuries of Visigothic rule in Hispania, and the Muslim conquerors spread over most of the peninsular territory without encountering much resistance among its inhabitants. Only the northern Cantabrian peoples resisted the invasion, being able to maintain their independence, while the Franks defeated the Muslims at Poitiers (732), managing to stop the Islamic advance into Europe.

The Arabs remained in the peninsula until 1492, the year in which the Catholic Monarchs completed the Reconquest with the capture of Granada, the last Muslim stronghold in Spain. In the course of these eight centuries, ancient Hispania was divided into two distinct parts: in the south, the Arabs; in the north, the Christians.

The Mozarabs in al-Andalus

The vast Hispanic region over which the Arabs imposed their own legal, economic and social order is known as al-Andalus, which experienced its maximum splendor at the time of the Caliphate of Cordoba (929-1031).

From the social point of view, al-Andalus included different ethnic groups, from the Syrian-Arabic aristocracy to the Berber population of humbler condition. On the other hand, the Muslim invaders coexisted with the indigenous Hispano-Gothic society that existed before their arrival, which was composed of three main groups: the Christians or Mozarabs, the Jews and the Muladis, who were former Christians converted to Islam.

The attitude of the Muslims towards the Mozarabs was quite tolerant, as they were able to maintain their religion and traditions for a long time, although they were subjected to a greater tax burden. These Mozarabs were Arabized throughout the Muslim domination. However, in periods of greater intolerance, many Mozarabs fled to the north of the peninsula, thus spreading the cultural knowledge they had assimilated from the Muslims.

The Mozarabic language

At this point, it is worth asking what Mozarabic really is. Well, the Muslim conquest brought with it the arrival of a new language to the Hispanic context, Arabic, which had nothing to do with Latin or the Romance spoken by the Hispano-Goths. The arrival of the new language produced a profound change in the linguistic situation of the peninsula: Arabic was imposed as the vehicular language in al-Andalus and acted as a superstratum, exerting a notable influence on the already existing languages.

It is in this influence that the origin of Mozarabic lies, which encompasses the set of Romance dialects that developed in al-Andalus as a consequence of the Arab invasion. Andalusian Romance (that is, Mozarabic) was used mainly in the family sphere and within the Mozarabic community, while Arabic was consolidated as the language of public use. This situation of diglossia left its mark on the later Romance languages developed in the Iberian Peninsula, especially in the vocabulary.

From the linguistic point of view, Mozarabic is a Romance language with a lexicon and grammar clearly inherited from Late Latin, although it is true that it includes many borrowings from Arabic. In some aspects, Mozarabic maintains more archaic linguistic features than other Romance languages, for example:

  • Conservation of the Latin diphthongs au and ai: aurecha, from Latin auriculam (in English, ear);
  • Absence of palatalization in the resolution of some consonant clusters: nohte, from Latin noctem (in English, night);
  • Preservation of the initial Latin f: furnache, from Latin furnacem (in English, oven);
  • Preservation of the voiced stop /d/: frid, from Latin frigidum (in English, cold).

In present-day Castilian Spanish, some terms inherited from Mozarabic have remained, such as, for example, gazpacho, guisante, alcayata, campiña, corcho, etc.

Sources for the study of Mozarabic

The Mozarabic dialects are not well known and, even today, scholars encounter many difficulties in their interpretation. The lack of documentation makes the situation even worse, because Mozarabic linguistic features can only be deduced from scarce sources. Moreover, the little written Mozarabic that has come down to us uses almost exclusively Arabic and Hebrew characters, even though it is a Romance language.

Thus, a good part of the Mozarabic testimonies are found, on the one hand, in the so-called “moaxajas”, cultured poetic compositions of the 11th and 12th centuries written in Arabic or Hebrew that end with a short stanza in Mozarabic language of popular character, called “jarcha”; and, on the other hand, in the “zéjeles”, poetic compositions of Arabic origin that were developed in the form of song in al-Andalus.

The following are a couple of paradigmatic examples of Mozarabic jarchas:


Thus, if we were to look back, we could classify the Romance languages in force in the medieval Hispanic context (around the 10th century) into six main groups: Galician-Portuguese, Asturleonese, Castilian, Navarrese-Aragonese, Catalan and the Mozarabic dialects of the south.

Carlos Sánchez Luis