Arabs have African ancestry

Sofa, coffee, sugar - German words from Arabic

Andreas Unger is a book author and classical philologist - and explains how objects of the finer way of life, science and technology and of course the associated terms found their way from Arabic culture to Europe in the Middle Ages - and via detours into the German language.

DW: How did Arabic words get into German?

Andreas Unger: That mostly happened in the Middle Ages. The Arab-Islamic culture was clearly superior to the medieval-European one.

Through the merchants and the Arabs in Spain and Sicily, the Europeans took over many things from science, technology and, above all, luxury items - and with them the Arab name, which they then Europeanized.

So, for example, the Europeans took over the mattress and the word for it?

It was a little more complicated because there were also changes in meaning. Matrah simply means 'place where something is thrown' in Arabic. These were the Arab customs, pillows, carpets or blankets were thrown on the floor or on seats. The Europeans were interested in the Arab luxury objects, and Middle High German "matratz" was originally also a luxury ceiling. Gradually, over time, the underbed has evolved from it and that has become today's mattress.

Did words like sofa and co. Come straight from Arabic into German?

The Germans did not border any Arabic-speaking countries and practically did not trade in the Mediterranean. Most of it came through the Italians, but also through Spain with the Arab population, through trade and the merchants who were in Palestine and bought things that were interesting in Europe.

Are certain groups of words particularly represented?

One of the two big groups is science. The Arabs had adopted Greek science, which was almost unknown in Europe around the year 1000. Then the corresponding Arabic books were translated into Latin, and so the corresponding terms from astronomy, mathematics, pharmacy came into the European languages.

The other group consists of luxury items: the sofa was originally a kind of seat of honor, sugar was very important and everything that was made of it: marzipan and rock candy, for example, then fragrances - jasmine, orange blossom -, tropical fruits like oranges and limes and musical instruments like lutes , Guitar and tambourine.

Is there a word whose Arabic origin surprised you in particular?

Petrol!

Sometimes the meaning developments are strange. Gasoline is derived from benzoic acid, which is obtained from benzoin, which, like frankincense, was originally a fragrance that was imported from Java.

For a long time it was hardly known that European culture has taken over a certain part of the Arab-Islamic cultural world and that some words have an Arabic origin. In the context of the confrontation between the European and the Arab-Islamic culture, it is interesting to know that the European culture has certain roots in the Arab-Islamic culture. That's why I wrote the book.

Andreas Unger is a linguist and lives in Berlin. "From Algebra to Sugar. Arabic Words in German" was published in an extended second edition in 2013 by Reclam Verlag, Leipzig.

This content was last updated on 02/24/2021.