Albacete: or There and Back Again from Arabic to Spanish

Tuesday afternoon I had to catch the bus from Villanueva del Arzobispo (where I work) back to Úbeda (where I live) because the teachers I carpool with had to stay late for parent-teacher conferences. Anyway, once I got to the bus station, I ran into a guy from Morocco who wanted to know where he could buy tickets to what I heard as “ahl-bah-SEE-tee” [al.baˈsi.ti]. Albasiti…where in the world? I thought. It didn’t help my confusion that we were two levels deep in foreign languages: I, a native English speaker using Spanish to talk to him, a native Moroccan Arabic speaker. At first, I struggled to figure out where exactly he was trying to go.

Bus station, Úbeda, Spain
Estación de autobuses, Úbeda
But then I remembered from the tiny bit of Arabic I studied in a course on Islam I took in college that Arabic only has 3 vowels, “ee ah oo” /i a u/, and it dawned on me that he wanted to go to the Spanish city of Albacete; he had raised the /e/ vowels in the city to the nearest one he could make, given his accent: /i/.

He ended up getting tickets for a departure later that afternoon, and we went our separate ways. But as I was riding home on the bus, I wondered if the way he pronounced that city’s name was, in fact, close to its historical form. After all, most place-names in Spain or words in Spanish that begin with an al- are usually of Arabic origin; that prefix means “the” in Arabic. Because Muslims from North Africa ruled over much of the Iberian peninsula for centuries in the Middle Ages, countless cities and towns draw their names from Arabic words or titles, often the Arabic form of a previous Roman name. I wondered if an “al-Basiti” happened to be the ancient form of Albacete.

Back at my apartment, I hit up Wikipedia and, sure enough, the city’s current name came from the Arabic al-basit, which means “the plain.”


al-Basit in Arabic script
Source: Wikipedia
Interestingly, the Arabic Wikipedia’s article for the same city lists al-basit and al-basiti as equivalent names (I can’t read Arabic script; I just use Google Translate’s speaker option).

Now we’ve come full circle.

For those of you not familiar with Spanish history, during the Middle Ages the “Christian” (i.e., European) kings in the north of the Iberian peninsula waged war against the “Muslim” (i.e., North African) kings to the south in what was called the Reconquista (“Reconquest”) of Spain. During this period, as regions were (re-)conquered, castles were handed over, mosques were converted to churches (or razed and rebuilt), and city names were approximated into Spanish from Arabic. al-Basit became Albacete and that was that.

But now, as more and more people from Morocco immigrate to Spain, perhaps in the future we will be hearing “ahl-bah-SEE-tee” as much as the Spanish “ahl-bah-THAY-tay” [al.baˈθe.te]. Stay tuned.

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