Five fascinating facts you didn't know about the letter Ñ in Spanish

Alex Dunham
Alex Dunham - [email protected]
Five fascinating facts you didn't know about the letter Ñ in Spanish
Photos: The Local, Wikimedia

If there’s one letter in the world that’s intrinsically Spanish it’s this one, so much so that the words for Spain (España) and Spanish (español) have it. But how much do you really know about this N with a squiggly hat on it?


Latin didn’t have an Ñ sound

Romance languages that evolved from Latin such as French and Italian also have the Ñ sound but it's written with GN to this day. In Portuguese, they use NH for the Ñ sound.

The Ñ was created to save space

Medieval scribes in Spain whose job it was to copy documents by hand developed the squiggle on top of the N to save space on their expensive parchments.

Before its written coinage, the Ñ sound was usually spelled with two Ns in Spain.

In the 13th century, Spain’s King Alfonso the Wise approved this use of the Ñ symbol to write the sound as part of his Orthographical Reform of the Castilian language.

The Ñ is actually part of many other languages’ alphabets

Three-hundred years of Spanish colonial rule in the Philippines led to the adoption of lots of Spanish words in their national language, Tagalog.

This resulted in the Ñ being among the letters that have been added to the traditional 20 letters of the language.

Coincidentally, a number of indigenous languages of Latin America such as Guarani, Iñupiaq, Kiliwa, Mapuche, Mixtec, Otomi, O'odham, Papiamento and Quechua used the Ñ sound already and thus incorporated the character into their alphabet too.

There’s also an Ñ in the alphabets of other regional languages in Spain such as Galician, Basque and Asturian.


The Ñ has been belittled by non-Spanish speakers

As English grew to be the world’s dominant language and there is neither a letter nor a phoneme for Ñ, the letter’s importance started to be overlooked as the digital age kicked off.

In 1991 a European Community report called for the repeal of a Spanish law preventing the sale in Spain of computers that didn’t have "all the characteristics of the Spanish writing system”, in other words with no Ñ on the keyboard.

The EC claimed it was a protectionist measure against the principles of the free market, but in 1993 the Spanish government managed to win its case by availing itself of the Maastricht Treaty which allows exceptions of a cultural nature.

However, to this day internet domains can’t contain an Ñ, nor can email addresses, and if your computer keyboard doesn’t contain an Ñ, finding the shortcut is far from easy.

Colombian Nobel Prize-winning novelist Gabriel García Márquez expressed his anger at the EC’s claims by saying: "The 'Ñ' is not an archaeological piece of junk, it’s a cultural leap from one Romance language that left the others behind by expressing with a single letter a sound that in other languages continues to be expressed with two".


It’s a symbol of the Spanish language

The letter Ñ has come to represent the identity of the Spanish language or Castilian (Castellano) as it’s often called in Spain.

As Spanish’s most distinctive feature (other than an upside-down exclamation or question mark at the start of sentences), it’s become the logo of flagship institutions such as Instituto Cervantes, it’s been plastered on the front cover of countless dictionaries and used as the focal point of brand and tourism campaigns.

Even CNN's Spanish-language news channel incorporates a logo where the squiggle (or tilde, as it’s officially called, is placed over two Ns. 



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