Your Weekly Dose of Spanish by Spaniology: Semana 13

Published in Dungarvan Leader Page 15 on Tuesday 19th of October 2021


The Ñ (eñe) is one of the most characteristic features of written Spanish. This idiosyncratic letter stands out in any Spanish text puzzling any potential observer unacquainted with the language. But what is the function and history of this letter without which the very name of español could not be written?

The Ñ simply represents the sound called voiced palatal nasal, i.e. a sound similar to NI in "onion" or NN in the name "Gráinne". This is by no means an exclusive feature of Spanish, and this sound forms part of the phonetic repertoire of multiple languages. Those using the Latin alphabet may resort to diverse letter combinations to represent it, and thus Portuguese and Occitan opted for NH (Espanha), Catalan and Hungarian for NY (Espanya and Spanyolország respectively), French and Italian for GN (Espagne and Spagna respectively) and some Slavic languages for NJ (e.g. Croatian Španjolska), to name a few.

In mediæval Castilian manuscripts the sound was represented by NN, which is rather logical on account of this sound developing mostly from the Latin double N —for instance the Spanish año from the Latin annus—. But writing was not the casual affair that it is today, where any numpty can waffle on to his heart's content on blogs, social media, or even cheap notepads and local newspapers, for the most traditional types. In an era before computers and mass-produced pulp paper, producing a piece of writing was a costly enterprise. Making a piece of parchment for writing was laborious and expensive, and one had to make the most of the available space. Therefore, abbreviations and any technique to reduce the length of one's writing was commonplace.

Mediæval scribes started to write all instances of NN with one N over the other to save space, custom that seems to have caught on quite universally. As one would imagine, the upper N would have to be reduced in size to fit in the space between the two lines. As the trend consolidated, the size of that letter became smaller and smaller until eventually becoming a simple squiggle on top of the main N, called virgulilla in Spanish and tilde in English.

The Ñ was a resounding success and it was adopted by neighbouring languages like Galician, Asturian and Basque, and also by more distant ones like Breton, Chavacano or Quechua —even reluctantly accepted in English in loan words like jalapeño or piña colada—. Such was its impact that it became an unquestionable sign of Spanish linguistic identity, prompting a bitter feud in the 1990s to preserve it on the keyboards of our computers, in the face of advancing technological Anglobalisation.

Those stingy scribes centuries ago would have hardly thought that their space-saving ruse would eventually result in one of the most revered and acclaimed symbols of the language.

* Here is your weekly dose of Spanish: El niño español se baña en la montaña todas las mañanas en otoño [The Spanish child swims in the mountain every morning in the autumn]

Sergio Fernández Redondo

Sergio hails from Asturias in northern Spain and has recently relocated to Dungarvan, where he is a Spanish teacher and PR specialist at Spaniology. Having an eclectic background in engineering, translation and linguistics, he is also a keen aficionado of history and languages.


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