Ole, Allah and all

Earlier today I had the chance to watch Elizabeth Gilbert's lively and interesting TED Talk on nurturing creativity. Her thoughts on the dangers of pinning too much on individual creative ability and ignoring its context (and transience) make good advice for those in creative industries of any kind.

Talking about the creative spark, though, she says:

And when this happened, back then, people knew it for what it was, you know, they called it by its name. They would put their hands together and they would start to chant, 'Allah, Allah, Allah. God, God, God.' That's God, you know. Curious historical footnote - when the Moors invaded southern Spain, they took this custom with them and the pronunciation changed over the centuries from 'Allah, Allah, Allah' to 'Ole, ole, ole', which you still hear in bullfights and in flamenco dances.

This claim for the etymology of ole (bravo) from Allaah (Allah, God) crops up a lot. It has a certain charm to it and draws on our fascination with the kingdom of Al-Andalus and the fusion of Muslim, Jewish and Christian cultures that thrived in the Iberian peninsula from the 8th century until the expulsion of Jewish and Islamic people and religious cultures in Spain in the 16th and early 17th centuries.

Unfortunately it has been discredited, mainly on the basis of the lack of evidence and the unlikely phonological shifts necessary to go from the low final vowel sound of Allaah to the high of ole. For the best and most knowledgeable treatment, see the late Alan S. Kaye (2005) 'Two Alleged Arabic Etymologies', Journal of Near Eastern Studies 64:2 (subscription required). The historical record is not in favour of the Allaah etymology either. Spanish ole is not recorded before 1541, long after the Reconquista. The revised entry in OED Online (2003) suggests ole may derive from hola/ola (the greeting) but is cautious even on this.

Interestingly, there are lots of exclamations of greeting, surprise or despair in both romance and Germanic languages that have a vowel-'l'-vowel pattern of some sort - compare alas, hela, weylahola, hail, heil hello (and its earlier variants, including hallo and hullo), holla, etc. (Note: not French voilà, which is from vois la - 'look there'.) As the OED implies, these probably all developed around each other to a certain extent.

Busting open beautiful myths is not any linguist's favourite task (unless he or she's a really sociopathic linguist), and this definitely falls into the 'I hate to have to tell you' category. But I think creativity and beauty need truth and reason to balance them and make them better, so there you go.

# Alex Steer (11/30/2009)