There’s no Spanish without not. Not to mention canas. Ñ is the 15th letter of the Spanish alphabet and is used in over 15,700 words. On April 23, Book Day, which since 2003 has also been Spanish Language Day, EL PAÍS traces the history of this special letter and examines how it became an icon of the Spanish language.
The letter ñ was first included in the dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy (RAE) in 1803. But its origins date back to the Middle Ages. Indeed, the letter appears in a text dating from 1176.
Neither the sound nor the letter ñ existed in Latin, but as the Latin language evolved and romantic languages such as Spanish, French and Italian began to appear, the palatal nasal sound, which became articulates with the back of the tongue raised towards the hard palate.
In the Middle Ages, monks were the scholars of society and monasteries were great centers of knowledge. It is believed that the letter ñ originated at this historical moment due to the shortage of scrolls, which were very expensive, and in order to save time. It seems that the monks, who worked as scribes and clerks in the monasteries, had to abbreviate some double letters to fit more words in each line.
It wasn’t until October 2, 2007 that the ñ, along with other tildes, could appear in email addresses and web domains.
According to this theory, the second repeated letter was represented by a tilde, known in Spanish as virgulilla, on the first. In other words, what we call the ñ is actually a double n, so instead of gave, we have dona.
There is a separate theory of how the letter sound came about. According to this theory, the letter ñ arose as a way to represent the new palatal nasal sounds that appeared in the 9th century – for example, the double n in Latin words such as annus (año, or year). These words meant more work for the monks and so in their effort to save time, different adaptations began to emerge depending on the language. The letter ñ was used in Spanish and Galician (España); the combination nh in Portuguese (Espanha); gn in French and Italian (Spain); and ny in Catalan (Spain).
These different forms continued to be used interchangeably until the 13th century, when King Alfonso X of Castile and León ordered a spelling reform as part of his policy of linguistic unification. The monarch, true to his reputation as a great reader, writer and intellectual of the time, introduced the letter ñ as the preferred option to the above combinations and thus established the first rules of the Spanish language. When the use of ñ became widespread in the Iberian Peninsula, the humanist Antonio de Nebrija included the letter in the first Spanish grammar book in 1492.
But not so long ago, the letter ñ was in danger of disappearing, at least from the written language. In the 1990s, the European Economic Community (EEC) proposed eliminating the ñ to standardize keyboards. The internet had also spread the letter. It wasn’t until October 2, 2007 that the ñ, along with other tildes, could appear in email addresses and web domains.
The letter is even starting to make more appearances in English in words of Spanish origin such as jalapeño, piña colada, and El Niño.
The EEC’s proposal sparked a backlash in favor of ñ and Spanish, which is the second most widely spoken language in the world. Even Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez rushed to defend the letter. “It is scandalous to say the least that the European Economic Community has dared to propose to Spain the elimination of the letter ñ from our alphabet, and even worse, only for reasons of commercial convenience,” he wrote in a editorial for EL PAÍS in 1991. “The authors of such abuse and such arrogance must know that the ñ is not an archaeological relic, but the opposite: a cultural leap from a Romance language that left the others behind her, expressing with a single letter a sound which in other Romance languages continues to be expressed in twos.
The controversy ended on April 23, 1993, when the Spanish government approved a royal decree that maintained the mandatory inclusion of the letter ñ on keyboards.
The letter is even starting to make more appearances in English in words of Spanish origin such as jalapeño, pina colada and El Niño. Until the middle of the 20th century, the ñ was more commonly written in English as the double n, as in the Battle of La Coruña. But now the letter is almost always respected and there is even an association, the Society for the Advancement of Spanish Letters in the Anglo Americas, which is pushing for the ñ to be permanently adopted in the English language.
But it is important to note that neither the letter ñ nor the sound are exclusively Spanish. In the Iberian Peninsula, it is used in Galician and Asturian, as well as to a lesser extent in Basque Basque. In Latin America, many indigenous languages also include the letter, such as Mapuche in Chile and Argentina, Zapotec in Mexico, and Quechua in Ecuador. And it also appears in other languages of cultures that have come into contact with Spanish, including Chabacano in the Philippines and Bube in Equatorial Guinea.
English version by Melissa Kitson.