January is, of course, the month when New Year’s greetings are exchanged: “Happy New Year” in English, Feliz Año Nuevo en español. The Spanish words for “year” and for the language itself both contain the single most readily-identifiable visible marker of the Spanish language: the letter ñ, pronounced ‘EN-yeh’. Ñ is a letter, but so much more: its cultural significance is great and seems only to be growing.
The ‘ny’ in English ‘canyon’ is the sound this letter represents. Indeed, that word comes from the Spanish cañón which can mean ‘canyon’ (like El Gran Cañón del Colorado, The Grand Canyon) or ‘cannon’ (the weapon). The job the single letter ñ does to represent the ‘ny’ sound in Spanish is done by two letters in other languages: in Italian and French by gn, and in Portuguese by nh, for instance. So lasagna is spelled lasanha in Rio de Janeiro and Lisbon, but lasaña in Caracas and Buenos Aires.
So powerful is this letter (which many non-Spanish speakers think of as an ‘N with a little squiggle on top’) as a marker of Spanish-ness that one often hears English speakers add it to Spanish words that actually have only a simple ‘N’. For instance, the habanero pepper is often pronounced in English as if it were habañero. This sort of thing happens a lot in language and is known as ‘hyper-correction’: the speaker makes an extra effort to be correct, and overdoes it. It’s the same reason people sometimes say “They sent a letter to he and I.”
The familiarity of ñ to English speakers, especially in the United States, is reinforced by its presence in a number of words in common use: piñata, jalapeño, mañana, niño, España, español, and others.
Extract from Antonio de Nebrija’s pioneering grammar of the Spanish language, published in 1492, a year of some significance in Spanish, and world, history
But where did this peculiar letter come from? Historical linguists tell us that in the Middle Ages, Spanish words originating in Latin that had a double n came to be pronounced ‘ny’. The phonetic term for this is ‘palatalization’: rather than the tip of the tongue touching the front of the palate, at the edge of the teeth, the tongue is brought all the way up to the palate, or roof of the mouth, and a larger section of the tongue touches the palate. Thus, what had been an ‘n’ sound becomes ‘ny’. That is one part of the story—the sound.
And sound seems to be an important part of ñ‘s appeal. Some linguists of Spanish believe that the palatalization ofn is a strong phonetic tendency in infancy, which has led to a series of words beginning with ñ and having a childish (or sometimes, by extension, foolish) connotation. Some examples: ñoño (silly, insipid), ñoñería (foolishness),ñaña (nursemaid, big sister), ñato (snub-nosed, or simply a child), ñiquiñaque (person or thing of little value). Other linguists have pointed to the ñ sound as a marker of the Spanish language’s expansion to the Americas—and the impact of the native languages of the Americas on it. Words like ñañdú (an ostrich-like bird of South America) andñañdubay (a hardwood) come from the Guaraní. Others testify to African influence: ñame (yam) and ñánigo(member of the Abakuá male secret societies of African origin), while still others come from elsewhere: ñoqui is simply Hispanized phonetics for Italian gnocchi.
Besides sound, the other part of the story comes to us from paleographers, who study ancient writing: parchment, the paper of its day, was very expensive; to save space, writers or copyists of manuscripts placed one n—a smaller one—atop the other. So, in truth, the ‘single’ letter ñ was born as the fusion of two n‘s. (The ampersand, not unique to Spanish, was similarly born as a digraph, or combination of two letters: Latin et, meaning ‘and’.)
Throughout the modern history of the language, then, ñ has been a distinctive, instantly recognizable feature of Spanish writing and type: the fifteenth letter of the alphabet (for centuries it was the sixteenth, as the consonant combination ch, between c and d, was fourth; the reform of the year 2010 eliminated ch, as well as ll, as separate letters of the alphabet).
The age of the computer and the Internet brought with it a serious challenge to the survival of ñ, and revealed perhaps unsuspected depths of feeling towards it among Spanish speakers. In the early 1990s, unease arose in Spain over the exporting to that country of computer keyboards without the ñ (as well as the inverted marks that are used to open exclamations or questions). When the Spanish Government openly expressed its distress and raised the possibility of requiring computers sold in Spain to have an ñ key, the European Community cried “Foul!” and alleged protectionism.
At the same time, a wave of emotional defenses of ñ began to surge throughout the Spanish-speaking world. Famously, Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez lashed out at the “arrogance” and “abuse” in the drive to eliminate ñ for reasons of mere “commercial convenience.” The Argentine poet María Elena Walsh, beloved composer of children’s music, also defended “this letter that is ours, this letter with its little hood, something that might seem insignificant, but is less ñoño [silly] than it might seem . . . The ñ is people.” Somehow ñ became a symbol—the symbol—of what was distinctive and unique about the Spanish language and the cultures that use it.
Finally, Spain passed a law in 1993 protecting ñ by requiring computer keyboards sold in the country to include it; invoking the Maastricht Treaty’s of cultural differences. Luis Durán Rojo, from Peru, tells this story engagingly. Of course, millions of Spanish speakers living outside of Spain and Latin America use laptops and other devices that lack an ñ key, and are not aware of how to produce that character (in Word, you press Control and Shift together, then the tilde key, then the letter n). The Spanish of emails, tweets, and instant messages is full of attempts to render the sound either phonetically (anio and the much less common anyo), Portuguese style (anho), or in Italian orthography (agno) for año. It is not uncommon to see ‘Feliz Ano Nuevo’—either an honest mistake by English speakers or a slightly off-color joke by hispanohablantes, as without the ñ‘s tilde it literally means ‘Happy New Anus’.
If the outcry over a ‘mere’ letter of the alphabet seems a bit silly, consider the reaction in the U.S. to the Metric Conversion Act of 1975. That act of Congress, mandating (in an unspecified way and without a clear timetable) the “increasing” use of the metric system in the United States, created a U.S. Metric Board in charge of public education towards that end. More than one Jeremiad about the loss of our cultural identity was heard in the land; there was also ridicule (comedians joked about pushy people: “Give them 2.54 cm and they’ll take 1.6 km”). The USMB was disbanded by 1982, and a quarter-century later, use of the metric system in the U.S. is incomplete and irregular at best.
So the ñ survives, and in the process has become much more than a mere letter. In both the Spanish-speaking world and in the U.S. (which, in truth, is part of that world, having some 40 million inhabitants for whom Spanish is either the sole, dominant, or maternal language), this letter symbolizes a language, a culture, a population. Thus, the weekly cultural supplement of Buenos Aires’s Clarín, one of Latin America’s largest-circulation daily newspapers, called Ñ, is now in its tenth year. On its logo, cable network CNN en Español uses a large tilde (the ‘squiggle’) over both N’s. In 1999, Newsweek touted ‘Generation Ñ’, a phrase coined by Cuban-American publisher Bill Teck to name the magazine he founded, aimed at young North Americans of Latin American descent.
A series of little accidents, circumstances, and oddities of language and history led here: the double ‘N’ consonant in certain Latin words inherited by Spanish, palatalization leading to the ‘ny’ sound, the placing of one of the N’s atop the other… let bake for several centuries, turn up the heat of globalization and the imposition of standards, leading to the assertion of the rising cultural, demographic, and economic power of Spain, Latin America, and U.S. Hispanics/Latinos—and a once quaint and humble letter stands tall and looms large now, a sort of ambassador for an entire language and culture.
Pablo J. Davis, Ph.D., C.T. is Principal and Owner of Interfluency Translation+Culture (TM), which delivers Spanish and English translation solutions as well as interactive, inspiring cultural training.