There's a common assumption that if the word begins with "al-" in Portuguese, it probably came from Arabic.

Consider the following examples:

  • alarm (alarme)

    early 14c., from Old French alarme (14c.), from Italian all'arme "to arms!" (literally "to the arms").

  • albino

    1777, from Spanish or Portuguese albino, from Latin albus "white" (see alb)

  • algae (alga)

    1794, from alga (singular), 1550s, from Latin alga "seaweed," which is of uncertain origin, perhaps from a PIE root meaning "to putrefy, rot."

  • allergic (alérgico)

    1911, from allergy + -ic; perhaps modeled on French allergique (1906)

  • allusive (alusivo)

    c. 1600, from Latin allus-, past participle stem of alludere + -ive

  • alluvial (aluvial)

    1802, from Latin alluvius "alluvial" (from alluvium: "matter deposited by flowing water," 1660s, from Medieval Latin alluvium, neuter of alluvius "washed against," from Latin alluere "wash against," from ad- "to, against" (see ad-) + -luere, comb. form of lavere "to wash").

  • ally (aliado)

    late 13c., (...) from a differentiated stem of aliier (from Latin alligare "bind to;")

  • alter (alterar)

    late 14c., from Medieval Latin alterare "to change"

  • allumn (ex-aluno)

    1640s, from Latin alumnus "a pupil," literally "foster son," vestigial present passive participle of alere "to nourish"

These are spread throughout several native European languages and their likely origin is Latin (was Latin influenced by Arabic?)...

Not focusing on nouns used for names of places and particular (older) nouns (e.g.: alface), how many words in Portuguese starting with "al-" really have Arabic origins? Perhaps answering this will provide some basis for an answer to an harder question about Arabic influence in Portuguese...

  • 2
    I set out to answer this but realized I didn't quite know what sort of answer you're looking for. Many Portuguese words starting with al- do come from Arabic, although quite a few others do not. What about words Portuguese took from Spanish or another non-Arabic language but which had come to those languages from Arabic before passing into Portuguese? What about words that Portuguese took from Arabic instead of Latin or perhaps Greek, but which Arabic earlier itself took from Latin or Greek? What's the rule for these “particular (older) nouns not to focus on” beyond the place-names? – tchrist Dec 19 '15 at 21:01
  • @tchrist I was less scrupulous than you were. I dealt with the request to exclude “particular (older) nouns” simply by ignoring the request. The overwhelming majority of al-words of non-Arabic origin come from Latin. I found a few of Castilian origin. Some of these look like they came from Latin (alterne, alteroso), other may well come from Arabic. The total count wouldn’t change much though. – Jacinto Dec 19 '15 at 22:12
  • @tchrist thanks for raising those questions, I understand and I was kind of expecting them. Considering that Latin "gave words" to Spanish and Portuguese, one of my goals with this was to track down if Latin was actually importing some of these words from Arabic and, if not, to compare the amount of al- prefixed words existing in Portuguese coming from Latin with those coming from Arabic (Jacinto has already presented a nice comparison of these). Sorry about the nonsense of the "older" nouns part, I removed that from the question... – Armfoot Dec 20 '15 at 12:49
up vote 7 down vote accepted

I went through my Dicionário da Academia das Ciências de Lisboa and counted about 270 words beginning with al of Arabic origin and about 435 of non-Arabic origin. These do not include names of places, but include about ten demonyms.

Wikipédia lists 197 Portuguese words of Arabic origin, of which 96 begin with al. So al-prefixed words make up about half of all words of Arabic origin in the Wikipédia list. Assuming the same proportion in the Dicionário da Academia, would bring the gran total there to about 550 words, or about 0.8% of all entries.

  • Excellent, appreciated! Just to be clear from "Dicionário da Academia das Ciências de Lisboa" there are 270+435=705 al- prefixed words that are not name of places and 38% of those are from Arabic origins, correct? I just didn't understand the comparison with the wikipedia list and how you calculate those final values (forget the "older" nouns I mentioned). – Armfoot Dec 20 '15 at 12:49
  • 1
    Correct: 270 + 435. 550 is to 270 as 197 is to 96, approximately. – Jacinto Dec 20 '15 at 13:03
  • @Armfoot, check whether the calculations are any clearer now. – Jacinto Dec 20 '15 at 13:32
  • All I know is that a lot of portuguese words do have an arabic origin,since the bigger parte of Portugal's territory centurys ago was governed by árabes and muslams. So it makes sence that a lot of words derive from arabic original but not all of tem. Also portuguese language is mostly founded and inspirated by latin – Inês Barata Feio Borges Dec 28 '15 at 16:34

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