Arabic Phonemes Represented by the Spanish Letter “J”

By Weston Ruter, for SPN 4920: Independent Readings at Seattle Pacific University, Fall 2004

The most difficult aspect of Arabic phonology for me, a speaker of English and Spanish, is the abundance of guttural sounds. Whereas Arabic has many phonemes in the velar /k x ɣ/, uvular /q/, pharyngeal /ʕ/, and glottal /ʔ h̴ h/ regions, Spanish and English have fewer: in Spanish the velar /k g x/, and in English the velar /k g/ and glottal /h/. The following table summarizes the guttural (velar-glottal) phonemic inventories of English, Spanish, and Arabic grouped into columns according to how the phonemes might be perceived allophonically by speakers of each language:

Phonemic Inventories


h 3

x 3
k q

ɣ ʕ ʔ x h̴ h 8

As seen in the table, Arabic has twice the number of guttural phonemes as Spanish and English. Additionally, many of the Arabic phonemes would be indistinguishable from each other to English and Spanish speakers, especially the three phonemes /x h̴ h/ which would most likely map to one phoneme /h/ in English and one phoneme /x/ in Spanish. This issue is illustrated by the difficulty of transliterating Arabic text into English or Spanish. The following table provides the symbols used to transliterate the guttural Arabic phonemes into English:

[k] k

[ɣ] ġ
[q] q

[ʕ] ʿ

[ʔ] ʾ



[h] h

Notice that for the phonemes /x h̴ h/ the base character used in the transliterations is “h” to which various diacritics are added in order to differentiate the allophonic sounds (which is hinted at by the use of a common base character). The three Arabic phonemes are all voiceless guttural fricatives, only one of which occurs in English: /h/, a voiceless glottal fricative, which is written as “h”. The other two phonemes /x h̴/ are perceived as allophones of /h/ in English; therefore “h” is used for the transliteration of the three Arabic phonemes. In Spanish, the situation is much the same except that the Arabic phonemes /x h̴ h/ are perceived as allophones of the voiceless velar fricative /x/, the only guttural fricative in Spanish. This phoneme is represented in the Spanish orthography by “j” (and also by “g” when followed by “e” or “i”). This brings me to the title of this paper: “Arabic Phonemes Represented by the Spanish Letter J.”

Arabic played a large part in the history of the Spanish language. In 711 CE, the Arabic-speaking Moors invaded Spain and established a presence there that lasted until 1492 CE: a period of over 700 years. During this time, Arabic was spoken on the Iberian peninsula and it contributed many words to Spanish, such as ajedrez (chess), berenjena (eggplant), and naranja (orange). Some loan-words, such as these, are written with “j”. As I postulated in the previous paragraph, Modern Arabic has three phonemes which are allophonic to “j” or /x/. In this paper, I want to confirm this postulation, that the Arabic phonemes represented by “j” in loan-words from Arabic are /x h̴ h/. I want to determine which Arabic phonemes are represented by “j”.

The answer lies in the loan-words themselves and specifically to their respective etymologies; it can be found by comparing the loan-words with the Arabic words from which they came, looking for the Arabic sounds that correspond to the Spanish letter “j”.

The data on which I performed my analyses consist of a subset of a 1,250 word list of Arabic loan-words in Spanish. The subset is composed of words which:

  1. contain the letter J,
  2. have an Arabic etymological entry with transliteration in the RAE dictionary, and
  3. were directly borrowed from Classical Arabic or an Arabic dialect such as Moroccan Arabic or “Hispanic Arabic.” Words which were originally from Arabic but came into the Spanish through a non-Arabic language were not included. For instance, the Spanish word jirafa was rejected because it came from the Italian giraffa, which came from the Arabic zurāfah.

With these restrictions, the list was shortened to 97 words, in which “j” occurs 99 times (it appears twice in two words). The following table presents the data that I used for my analyses. For each row, the Arabic loan-word appears in the “Spanish” column and the loan-word's Arabic source appears in the “Arabic” column. The “J” column shows which Arabic phoneme(s) is represented by “j” in each word. The final “Arabic” column provides the RAE etymology for each word. Note that the RAE dictionary uses a transliteration system other than the IPA.

Following the table, I will present findings.

abencerraje aban [as]sarráǧ ǧ Del ár. hisp. aban [as]sarráǧ, hijo del guarnicionero, nombre del antepasado de esta familia granadina de procedencia árabe.
adaraja addaráǧa ǧ Del ár. hisp. addaráǧa, y este del ár. clás. daraǧah.
aguajaque alwuššáq šš Del ár. hisp. *alwuššáq, contaminado por agua.
ajabeba aššabbába šš Del ár. hisp. aššabbába, y este del ár. clás. šabbābah.
ajaraca aššaráka šš Del ár. hisp. aššaráka, lazo, y este del ár. clás. šarakah, red.
ajarafe aššaráf šš Del ár. hisp. aššaráf, y este del ár. clás. šaraf, altura dominante.
ajebe aššább šš Del ár. hisp. aššább, y este del ár. clás. šabb.
ajedrea aššaṭríyya šš Del ár. hisp. aššaṭríyya o aššiṭríyya, y este del lat. satureia.
ajedrez aššaṭranǧ šš Del ár. hisp. aššaṭranǧ o aššiṭranǧ, este del ár. clás. šiṭranǧ, este del pelvi čatrang, y este del sánscr. čaturaṅga, de cuatro miembros.
ajenuz šanúz š Del ár. hisp. šanúz, este del ár. clás. šūnīz, y este del persa šuniz.
ajimez šamís š Del ár. hisp. šamís.
ajomate aǧǧummát ǧǧ Del ár. hisp. aǧǧummát, cabelleras, y este del ár. clás. ǧumam.
ajorca aššúrka šš Del ár. hisp. aššúrka, y este del ár. clás. šuruk, pl. de širāk, correa.
ajuagas aššuqáq šš Del ár. hisp. aššuqáq, y este del ár. clás. šuqāq.
ajuar aššiwár šš Del ár. hisp. aššiwár o aššuwár, y este del ár. clás. šawār o šiwār.
alajor ‘ašúr š Quizá del ár. hisp. ‘ašúr, período de diez días antes de la Pascua Grande en que se pagaban deudas y se hacían limosnas.
alarije al‘aríš š Del ár. hisp. al‘aríš, y este del ár. clás. ‘arīš.
alejija addašíša š,š Del ár. hisp. addašíša, y este del ár. clás. ǧašīšah.
alfajeme alḥaǧǧám ǧǧ Del ár. hisp. alḥaǧǧám, y este del ár. clás. ḥaǧǧām.
alfanje alẖánǧar ǧ Del ár. hisp. alẖánǧar o alẖánǧal, y este del ár. clás. ẖanǧar.
alfarje alfárš š Del ár. hisp. alfárš, y este del ár. clás. farš, lecho o tapiz que lo suple.
alforja alẖurǧ ǧ Del ár. hisp. alẖurǧ, y este del ár. clás. ẖurǧ.
alhaja alḥáǧa ǧ Del ár. hisp. alḥáǧa, y este del ár. clás. ḥāǧah, cosa necesaria o valiosa.
alijar addišár š Del ár. hisp. addišár, y este del ár. clás. ǧušār.
alioj yašb š Quizá del ár. hisp. yašb, este del arameo yašpe, y este del acadio [j]ašpū, jaspe.
aljaba alǧá‘ba ǧ Del ár. hisp. alǧá‘ba, y este del ár. clás. ǧa‘bah.
aljabibe alǧabbíb ǧ Del ár. hisp. *alǧabbíb.
aljama alǧamá‘a ǧ Del ár. hisp. alǧamá‘a, y este del ár. clás. ǧamā‘ah, infl. en su forma por aljama2.
aljaraz alǧarás ǧ Del ár. hisp. alǧarás, y este del ár. clás. ǧaras.
aljibe alǧúbb ǧ Del ár. hisp. alǧúbb, y este del ár. clás. ǧubb.
aljofaina alǧufáyna ǧ Del ár. hisp. alǧufáyna, y este del ár. clás. ǧufaynah, dim. de ǧafnah.
aljofifa alǧaffífa ǧ Del ár. hisp. alǧaffífa, esponja.
aljor al[l]aǧúr ǧ Quizá del ár. hisp. al[l]aǧúr, este del ár. clás. āǧurr, este del arameo āgūrā, y este del acadio agurrum, ladrillos.
aljuba alǧúbba ǧ Del ár. hisp. alǧúbba, y este del ár. clás. ǧubbah.
aljuma alǧúmma ǧ Del ár. hisp. alǧúmma, y este del ár. clás. ǧummah, cabellera.
almajaneque almanǧaníq ǧ Del ár. hisp. almanǧaníq, este del ár. clás. manǧanīq, y este del gr. μηχανική.
almajar alma‘ǧár ǧ Del ár. hisp. alma‘ǧár, y este del ár. clás. mi‘ǧar.
almajara almašǧára šǧ Del ár. hisp. almašǧára, y este del ár. clás. mašǧarah.
almarjo almárǧ ǧ Quizá del ár. hisp. almárǧ, este del ár. clás. marǧ, y este del avéstico margu.
almarraja almarášša šš Del ár. hisp. almarášša, y este del ár. clás. miraššah.
almijar almanšár š Del ár. hisp. almanšár, de la raíz clás. {nšr}, extender para secar.
almijara almiš‘ála š Quizá del ár. hisp. *almiš‘ála, y este del ár. clás. maš‘alah, linterna, antorcha.
almijarra almaǧárra ǧ Del ár. hisp. almaǧárra, y este del ár. clás. maǧarr.
almofrej almafráš š Del ár. hisp. almafráš.
almojama almušámma‘ š Del ár. hisp. almušámma‘, hecho como carne momia, y este del ár. clás. mušamma‘, hecho cera.
almojarife almušríf š Del ár. hisp. almušríf, y este del ár. clás. mušrif.
almojaya almušayya‘ š Del ár. hisp. almušayya‘, y este del ár. clás. mušayyi‘, acompañante.
alquequenje alkakánǧ ǧ Del ár. hisp. alkakánǧ, este del ár. clás. kākanǧ, y este del persa kāknaǧ.
anejir annašíd š Del ár. hisp. annašíd, y este del ár. clás. našīd.
arrejaque arraššáqa šš Del ár. hisp. arraššáqa, de la raíz del ár. clás. {ršq}, disparar.
atarjea attašyí‘
š Del ár. hisp. attašyí‘, y este del ár. clás. tašyī‘, acompañamiento.
atijara attiǧára
ǧ Del ár. hisp. attiǧára, este del ár. clás. tiǧārah, este del arameo taggārā, y este del acadio tamkārum, comerciante.
azarja aṣṣárǧa
ǧ Del ár. hisp. aṣṣárǧa, y este del arameo rabínico sārag, trenzar.
azulejo azzuláyǧ[a] ǧ Del ár. hisp. azzuláyǧ[a].
balaj balaẖš
ẖš Del ár. balaẖš, reducción de la voz balaẖšī, gentilicio de Badaẖš[ān], región de Asia Central donde se encuentran estas piedras.
berenjena baḏinǧána
ǧ Del ár. hisp. baḏinǧána, este del ár. clás. bāḏinǧānah, y este del persa bātingān.
cambuj kanbúš
š Del ár. hisp. kanbúš, y este del lat. tardío caputĭum, capucho.
ejarbe iššárb
šš Del ár. hisp. *iššárb, y este del ár. clás. širb, aguada, cantidad de agua con que se riega.
enjarje iššarǧ
šš, ǧ Del ár. hisp. *iššarǧ, y este del ár. clás. šarǧ, colocación [de ladrillos].
enjeco iššáh
šš Del ár. hisp. iššáh, este del ár. clás. šāh, y este del pelvi šāh, rey, voz con que se daba jaque.
jábega šábka
š Del ár. hisp. šábka, y este del ár. clás. šabakah, red.
jabeque šabbák š Del ár. hisp. šabbák, esquife para pescar con redes.
jadraque šaḍrat š Del ár. *šaḍrat.
jaez ǧaház
ǧ Del ár. hisp. *ǧaház, y este del ár. clás. ǧahăz o ǧihăz, aparejo.
jaharrar ǧayyár ǧ Der. del ár. hisp. ǧayyár, cal.
jaique ayk
Del ár. marroquí ḥayk, y este del ár. clás. ḥā‘ik, tejedor.
japuta šabbúṭa
š Del ár. hisp. *šabbúṭa, este del ár. clás. šab[b]ŭṭ, y este del arameo šabbūṭā.
jaque šāh
š Del ár. clás. šāh, y este del pelvi šāh, rey.
jaqueca šaqíqa
š Del ár. hisp. šaqíqa, y este del ár. clás. šaqīqah.
jara šá‘ra' š Del ár. hisp. šá‘ra, y este del ár. clás. ša‘rā', tierra llena de vegetación.
jarabe šaráb
š Del ár. hisp. šaráb, y este del ár. clás. šarāb, bebida.
jareta šaríṭa
š Del ár. hisp. šaríṭa, y este del ár. clás. šarīṭah, cinta.
jaricar šarík
š Der. del ár. hisp. šarík, y este del ár. clás. šarīk, socio.
jarifo šaríf
š Del ár. hisp. šaríf, y este del ár. clás. šarīf, noble.
jarra ǧárra
ǧ Del ár. hisp. ǧárra, y este del ár. clás. ǧarrah.
jatib ṭib
Del ár. marroquí ẖṭib, y este del ár. clás. ẖaṭīb, predicador.
jazarino ǧazāy[i]rī ǧ Del ár. ǧazāy[i]rī, argelino, gentilicio de alǧazāy[i]r, las islas, por alus. a las que dieron su nombre a Argel.
jebe šább
š Del ár. hisp. šább, y este del ár. clás. šabb.
jeliz ǧallís ǧ Del ár. hisp. ǧallís, tratante, y este de la raíz del ár. clás. {ǧls}, sentarse [en sesión].
jeque šáyẖ š Del ár. hisp. šáyẖ, y este del ár. clás. šayẖ, anciano que manda.
jerife šaríf š Del ár. hisp. šaríf, y este del ár. clás. šarīf, noble.
jeta ǧaṭm ǧ Del ár. ǧaṭm, hocico, pico, nariz.
jifa ǧífa ǧ Del ár. hisp. ǧífa, y este del ár. clás. ǧīfah, carroña.
jinete zanáti z Del ár. hisp. zanáti, gentilicio de Zanāta, confederación de tribus bereberes conocida por la cría de caballos y el dominio de la equitación.
jirel ǧilál ǧ Del ár. hisp. ǧilál, y este del ár. clás. ǧilāl, basto.
jofor ǧufúr ǧ Del ár. hisp. ǧufúr, y este del ár. clás. ǧufŭr, pl. de ǧafr, membrana de camello usada para adivinar, presagio.
jorfe ǧúrf ǧ Del ár. hisp. ǧúrf, y este del ár. clás. ǧurf, escarpa.
joroba adúbba Del ár. hisp. ḥadúbba, y este del ár. clás. ḥadabah.
jorro ǧúrr ǧ Del ár. hisp. ǧúrr, imper. de ǧárr, y este del ár. clás. ǧarra, arrastrar.
marjal márǧa‘ ǧ Del ár. hisp. márǧa‘, medida agraria.
mujalata mālṭa Del ár. marroquí mẖālṭa o mūẖālāṭa, trato mixto; cf. port. malta, pandilla.
naranja naranǧa ǧ Del ár. hisp. naranǧa, este del ár. nāranǧ, este del persa nārang, y este del sánscr. nāraṅga.
rejalgar ráhǧ alḡár ǧ Del ár. hisp. ráhǧ alḡár, literalmente, 'polvo de la cueva'.
sajelar sahhál hh Der. del ár. hisp. sahhál, purgar, y este del ár. clás. sahhala, facilitar.
toronja turúnǧa ǧ Del ár. hisp. turúnǧa, este del ár. clás. turunǧah, este del persa toranǧ, y este del sánscr. mātuluṅga.
toronjil turunǧán ǧ Del ár. hisp. turunǧán, este del ár. clás. turunǧān, y este del persa torongān.
trafalmejas ṭárf annáǧs ǧ Quizá del ár. hisp. ṭárf annáǧs, extremo de inmundicia.
Etymologies © the Real Academia Española. List of loan-words © Zdravko Batzarov.

On this data, I performed computational analyses and found the distribution of the Arabic letters which are now represented with “j”. The results were quite surprising:

z (1)
ز z
z (1%)
ǧǧ (2)
ʒ (45%)
ǧ (42)
ج ʒ
šǧ (1)
š (32)
ش ʃ
ʃ (49%)
šš (15)
ẖš (1)
h (6%)

hh (1)


Apparently contrary to my prediction, the Spanish letter “j” only represents the Arabic phonemes /x h̴ h/ in 6% of the loan-words. The vast majority (94%) of the Arabic phonemes represented by “j” are the postalveolar fricatives /ʒ ʃ /, not the guttural fricatives which I predicted. My prediction, however, is valid and the conflicting evidence is actually a key that led me to not only a confirmation of my hypothesis, but also to a discovery of a unique aspect of the history of Arabic loan-words in Spanish. The conclusions that I drew from the analysis I find quite interesting:

  1. The letter “j” used to represent the phoneme / ʃ / (of which [ʒ] was an allophone) instead of the current Spanish phoneme /x/. I verified this conclusion by consulting Rafael Lapesa's Historia de la lengua española. Of further interest, Lapesa states that “j” represented / ʃ / only until the 16th century, after which it came to represent /x/ (p. 204).
  2. The majority (over 90%) of Arabic loan-words were borrowed before the Reconquista (late 15th century) when Arabic was still spoken on the Iberian peninsula. The evidence for this is that the Spanish phoneme /ʃ / existed solely in medieval Spanish. Therefore, loan-words in which the phoneme occurs were most likely borrowed during that period. Of the words in the data set, 94% had “j” for / ʃ /.
  3. The Arabic loan-words which contained /x h̴ h/ were borrowed after the 16th century and amounted to a small number, under 10%, of all Arabic borrowings; this is the converse of the previous conclusion.  Further evidence for this lies in the etymologies of the few Arabic loan-words from the data set which contain /x h̴ h/: most are from Moroccan Arabic. The influence of Moroccan Arabic would have become most pronounced after the overwhelming Arabic influence of the Moors had ended with their expulsion in 1492. So these words from Moroccan Arabic, which have /x h̴ h/ written as “j”, were most likely borrowed after the Reconquista, when /x/ had taken over in Modern Spanish. However, the influence of Moroccan Arabic on Spanish would have been much less since the Mediterranean sea separated them, and therefore fewer loan-words were borrowed after the Reconquista. Of the loan-words in the data set, only 6% had “j”  transliterated for /x/.
  4. The phonological shift of /ʃ → x/ that occurred in the 16th century was applied to the Arabic loan-words from the Medieval period. Because of this, the old Arabic borrowings continued to be written with “j”, whereas the small number of new Arabic loan-words which contained the phonemes /x h̴ h/ were also written with “j”. This explains why “j” can represent both /ʒ ʃ / and /x h̴ h/ in Arabic loan-words: the letter's phonemic value changed over time and was thus employed to transliterate different Arabic phonemes.

The following table summarizes the distribution of when Arabic words were borrowed into Spanish and how the Arabic phonemes were collapsed into Spanish ones:

Before 16th century 94%
ʃ ʒ
ʃ j
After 16th century 6%
x h̴ h

In conclusion, my hypothesis was correct that the Arabic phonemes /x h̴ h/ would be interpreted as allophones of the one Spanish phoneme /x/ and hence written “j”. However, it is only valid in Modern Spanish as the phoneme /x/ was / ʃ/ before the 16th century.