History of Spanish language

The origin of the letter ñ, are there other languages that use it?

The letter ñ is an undisputed reference in Spanish. It is expected to see this letter and immediately relate it to this language; in fact, the name of the language already includes it, although its sound is not exclusive to this language. Learn with us a little history of the Spanish language through this letter.

Although Spanish comes from Latin, the eñe represents a sound that did not exist in that language. With the evolution of Latin, new sounds emerged and thus the Romance languages were born, such as Italian, Portuguese, French and Spanish. All these languages share phonetic and grammatical similarities, and along with the appearance of these new languages, a new sound also emerged defined as nasal (the air comes out through the nose), palatal (when pronouncing it, the tongue rests against the hard palate), voiced (the strings vowels vibrate), which in Spanish we identify as eñe.

Origin of the sound eñe

In the Middle Ages, there was Vulgar Latin, the Latin from people, which distanced itself from Classical Latin due to its syntactic simplifications and differences in pronunciation. One of the phenomena present in Vulgar Latin was the palatalization of the letter “n”, which gave rise to the sound “ñ” mainly in three contexts:

  1. In the syllables “ni” and “ne” + vowel: when the sounds “ni” or “ne” were followed by another vowel, the sound “n” was influenced by the palatal sound of the vowels and ended up adopting a nasal sound: the eñe. As in the case of the Latin vinea, which derived to “viña” (in Spanish), “vigne” (in French), “vigna” (in Italian), “vinha” (in Portuguese) and “vinya” (in Catalan).
  2.  GN: the eñe sound is also born as an evolution of the union of the sounds /g/ and /n/, as in the Latin agnellus (little lamb) from which the French “agneau”, the Italian “agnello”, the Spanish “añojo” and the Catalan “anyell”.
  3. NM or NN: the articulatory effort involved in pronouncing a double “n” or an /n/ plus an /m/ led to the simplification of the sound towards /ñ/. This is what happens in “año” (Spanish), which comes from the Latin annus, or “sueño” (Spanish), “sogno” (Italian) and “sonho” (Portuguese), which come from the Latin somnu.

Writing of the eñe

Once the sound was generated, the problem of writing it arose. At first, the scribes used the spelling “nn”. For example, in the case of año (year), they wrote “anno”, or instead of añojo (yearling), they wrote “agnojo”, but to save time, parchment and ink, they began to use abbreviations (something widespread at that time) and so, for the abbreviation of the “nn” it was decided to write a single “n” with a virgula above it (virgula is the wave so characteristic of the letter ñ).

The “ñ” was then born motivated by the economy of resources. It was a practical solution that saved a lot of time for the scribal monks of the time since they were practically the only ones who knew how to write during the Middle Ages.

The spelling of the double “n” was already a solved problem, but what was happening with “gn” and “ni”+vowel and “ne”+vowel? Well, they continued writing it in that way, and that was not practical at all. Then, it was Alfonso X of Castile, also known as the Wise, who decided to take matters into his own hands and in the 13th century, he established the first rules of Spanish where the “ñ” was designated as the only spelling to represent the voiced palatal nasal sound that we call “eñe” in Spanish.

Thank you, Alfonso X the Wise, for standardising such a beautiful letter in our language.

The eñe in the world

Well, the spelling of the “ñ” and its phoneme (sound) are not exclusive to Castilian or Spanish. It turns out that in the Iberian Peninsula, Galician and Asturian also use this spelling and in Latin America, indigenous languages such as Quechua, Aymara, Mapuche, Guaraní, Mixtec, Zapotec and Otomí also have the eñe. However, in the case of Amerindian languages, many did not have writing when the Spanish arrived on the continent, so the languages that did have the voiced palatal nasal sound, like Spanish, were transcribed using that spelling.

In addition to these Amerindian languages and languages from Latin, the “eñe” sound is also present in languages as diverse as languages of Slavic origin, such as Czech (with its “Ň”) or Polish (with its “ń”), and even Senegalese languages. On the other hand, the letter ñ is used in countries like the United States in terms of Spanish origin, such as “piña colada” and the climate phenomenon “El Niño”.

Despite all this, the “ñ” continues encountering obstacles in the digital age. Why is there such a significant rejection of this iconic and beautiful letter? The big problem is that, in the world, English continues to be the dominant language, and it has neither that spelling nor that phoneme and many times, everything that English does not have does not exist, even though it is abundant in the world. Ñ is essential because it is not the same to say pena (sorrow) as peña (crew), cana (grey hair) as caña (rod), or año (year) as ano (anus), you see!

Improving language

Tongue twisters in Spanish: practise your pronunciation

Tongue twisters are short, fun texts that can be repeated over and over again to improve the pronunciation of words or unions of words that are more difficult. The beauty of tongue twisters is that they are phrases made up of words with similar sounds, which, when put together, are difficult to pronounce fluently, both for native speakers and for those who are not. For this reason, they represent an articulatory challenge for everyone. The challenge is to pronounce them quickly without making any mistakes.

Tongue twisters are usually word games that combine similar phonemes (minimum sound units) frequently enough to create rhymes. They constitute a type of popular literature of an oral nature present in many languages.

Origin of tongue twisters

The origin of tongue twisters is unclear, but some studies place them in Ancient Greece, where the wise men began to use riddles, paradoxes and word games for educational purposes. Greek culture admired the level of knowledge and skill in reading. Therefore, those who managed to pronounce tongue twisters well should dedicate themselves to oratory or intellectual work versus those who should commit themselves to physical work.

Since those who pronounced words correctly were admired for their knowledge and good reading, tongue twisters were an excellent way to learn and develop the mind.

The benefit of tongue twisters

1. They promote reading fluency: The faster you learn to recite them, the greater your fluency when speaking and reading. In addition, it promotes reading fluency and improves reading speed and pauses.

2. Improves vocalisation: Saying a tongue twister forces you to try to properly vocalise each phoneme and letter (especially those which usually show problems, such as ‘r’) in a fun way. It is like speech therapy but in a relaxed environment.

3. They increase vocabulary: Practising words you do not know that are similar to others you already know makes remembering them easier and using them later.

Now that you know more about tongue twisters, let’s see how good you are!

  • “Tres tristes tigres trigo comían en un trigal”
  • “Cuando cuentes cuentos

cuenta cuantos cuentos cuentas,

porque si no cuentas

cuántos cuentos cuentas

nunca sabrás cuántos cuentos sabes contar”.

  • “El rey de Constantinopla

se quiere descontantinopolizar

     aquel lo descontantinopolice

    buen descontantinopolizador será”.

Culture around Spanish language

Swear words and idiosyncrasies in Spanish-speaking

Swearing, profanity, rudeness, or insult. Call them what you want. You shout them, you release them, you throw them into the air in moments of fury. They remove your tension after a blow. They slip out unintentionally, occasionally, and most of the time, it feels very liberating to say them.

The RAE defines palabrota (swearing) as an “offensive, indecent or rude saying” and insultar (insulting) as “offending someone by provoking and irritating them with words or actions.” The insult, then, is a speech act that attempts to attack or humiliate a person at a given moment. For this reason, insults are outside the social norm.

But insults are not only speech acts that attack the positive and, in some cases, negative image of the interlocutors, but they are also capable of reflecting what attitudes, beliefs and qualities are evaluated as negative or positive by the members of a specific speech community. In this sense, insulting statements are part of a particular speech community’s linguistic and cultural heritage and can reflect specific social (anti)values. In this way, the insult, born from words (linguistic terrain), is also extrapolated to the social and cultural terrain.

Although swearing is outside the social norm, it is not always “purely impolite speech acts” since the use of identification of a particular group is also observed. In these cases, they do not have an offensive semantic load but instead fulfil other functions, such as creating solidarity, strengthening ties of camaraderie and friendship, emphasising, and intensifying statements, expressing surprise, drawing the attention of the interlocutor, and identifying the participants in the interactions as members of a group. As in the case of “¡Buena güeón, tanto tiempo! (Chile) (Hey, mate, long time!) or “¡Pedazo de cabrón, cuánto tiempo! (España)  (You piece of bastard, how long!).

The linguistic taboo

Not all cultures consider the exact words offensive, but they all have in common that they consider taboo words abusive. The forbidden always arouses social interest.

Three significant taboos are repeated as a theme within swearing. First, there is the eschatological sphere. Rudeness that refers to excrement, dirt, bodily secretions, or the parts of the body that produce them are very common. Then, the sexual sphere. A good part of the bad words refers to the sexual act, especially if, in a particular culture, it is a rather shameful topic. Something curious about Spanish, both Hispanic American and European, is that there are quite a few insults related to those who practice prostitution (hijoputa/hijaputa, hijo de puta, hija de puta) (son of a bitch, daughter of a bitch). Still, none refer to who pays for sex.

Religion and everything related to the sacred are topics that are not expected to be raised outside of a context of solemnity, so creating rude words from this type of word is genuinely transgressive.  It corresponds to the third great taboo: the religious sphere.  Christianity explicitly says: “Thou shalt not take God’s name in vain,” so bringing up sacred objects in everything mockery is very provocative.

Another type of insult is the one that refers to someone’s low intellectual capacity. On the other hand, in Latin American cultures, it is standard to insult someone by referring to their mother. Here, you can watch a video about linguistic taboos on swearing.

The types of swear words according to countries

[Warning: If you are in a public space where they speak Spanish, I do not recommend reading this part of the article out loud, or more than one person will look at you mean.]

In Spain, it is striking how the religious sphere occupies a vital place regarding insults. For example, they have expressions like “hostia” (host), “me cago en la mar” (I shit in the sea) or “me cago en la hostia” (I shit in the host) or other stronger ones like “me cago en Dios” (I shit in God). On the other side of the Atlantic, in Chile and Argentina, there is a tendency to insult mainly with swear words that allude to the sexual sphere, such as “concha”(shell: a vulgar way to refer to the vagina), “pico” (beak: a vulgar way to refer to the penis), “chucha” (a vulgar way to refer to the vagina), “raja” (a vulgar way to refer to the ass) or “concha de su madre”.

These differences in themes are fascinating because they tell us about what is uncomfortable for a society like the Spanish, Argentine or Chilean and how, through insults, they can release -in part- what they repress as a society.

Culture around Spanish language

Spanish dialects around the world

Spanish, also known as Castilian, is spoken, or studied by more than 500 million people around the world; of these, more than 450 million are fully fluent – approximately 50 million are fluent with certain limitations, and nearly 20 million are in the language learning process. This means that 67% of the world’s population speaks Spanish. Yes, I said it right: 67% of the world’s population speaks Spanish!!

It is the second most spoken language after Mandarin, ahead of English, and is the official language of 21 countries. In Europe, it is spoken in Spain; In America, it is the official language of Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Chile, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Uruguay, and Venezuela. and in Africa, it is the official language in Equatorial Guinea. Additionally, there is a significant percentage of native speakers in parts of the United States, Brazil, Canada, Algeria, the Philippines, Australia, and Israel.

Faced with this enormous demographic and geographical extension, there is also massive linguistic diversity, both phonetic (that is, in the accents and pronunciation of words), lexical (forms of writing) and morphosyntactic (ways of structuring a sentence).

Measure your words when talking to your grandfather

Spanish speakers know very well that these peculiarities exist since not everyone uses the same variety of the language. Just as there are linguistic varieties of the same language depending on the cultural or social group to which one belongs, the same language also varies depending on the generations. For example, a grandfather does not use the same expressions or words as his grandchildren; these intergenerational linguistic subtleties probably come to light when interacting.

Being aware of these differences can be complicated, but at the same time exciting and very entertaining when learning a new language. Let’s look at some examples.

Do you know the adage “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”?

Well, it makes perfect sense when talking about language, and even more so about the same language, since geography is an essential factor in the formation and evolution of languages: ¿tú vas hoy? or ¿vos vas hoy? ¿vosotros vais hoy? or ¿ustedes van hoy? How should you ask? Don’t panic, don’t collapse, all those options are fine. The difference is that the “¿vas hoy?” It is used in Spain and much of America, while “¿vos vas hoy?” It is the common expression in Argentina and Uruguay. If you are in Spain, you will hear this same question in the plural as ¿vosotros vais hoy? in an informal context, while in a formal context, it will be ¿ustedes van hoy?” in the case of American countries, ¿ustedes van hoy?” is used, whether in a formal or informal context. Spaniards will only say “ustedes” when they want to address someone with respect. On the other hand, the formal singular for Spain and for the countries of America is “you”.

If you want to know more about these morphosyntactic differences, you can review the Cervantes Virtual Centre’s article about the linguistic diversity of contemporary Spanish.

Potatoes or tomatoes?

But let’s leave behind the more formal issues of language use and give way to the most fun of the Spanish variants. Where there is the most outstanding number of lexical variations is in the vocabulary related to food, so while in Spain they talk about patatas, in Latin America, they are papas, and while in Mexico, Venezuela and Spain they call the delicious summer fruits fresas, in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay are called frutillas.

Since I have lived in Spain and am Chilean, I can tell you more anecdotes. For example, we stress words of Anglo-Saxon origin differently: in Spain, people say deo, while in Chile we say video and while Chileans say ícono, Spaniards say icono.

Does the hole in your sock have a name in your country? Well, in Spain, they call it tomate (tomato); that was very funny to me when I learned it because, in Chile, we also use the name of a vegetable, but it’s papa (potato), ha-ha!

I will give you two last pieces of information that have to do with professional translation and, of course with the country for which it is translated. Do you know the children’s movie Chicken Run? (it has been a few years since it was released). In Chile it was translated as “Pollitos en fuga”, while in Spain its commercial name was “Evasión en la granja”, and when “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” was released, it arrived in Chile as “Eterno resplandor de una mente sin recuerdos”, while in Spain its translation was “¡Olvídate de mí!”, erasing all poetic traces of the original title ☹.

Finally, I leave you a video that summarises in a very entertaining way what we have been talking about in this article. Don’t despair and laugh at how challenging and diverse Spanish is sometimes! Enjoy it!

Remember that no matter what variant of Spanish you speak or are learning, there is no one Spanish that is better than another, as there are only differences within the same language, and they are all fine. If you travel or share with Spanish speakers of a different variant than yours, you will have fun and be significantly enriched by seeing the differences. In addition, the new iScribo considers a large part of these within its latest version of grammar correction. So, practice, learn and enjoy!

Writing in Spanish

Question and exclamation marks in Spanish. Let’s see how to use it!

In Spanish, the exclamation marks (!) and question marks (?) are double, like parentheses. That is, they delimit both interrogative and exclamatory sequences. Unlike languages like English or French, which have auxiliaries or a specific grammatical formula or order for constructing a question, Spanish is more unrestrained, so the only way to indicate that you are facing the beginning of an exclamation or question mark is through the first sign. This is the clue that allows correct intonation when reading a text, so the opening signs (?) should not be suppressed to imitate other languages that only use the closing sign.

But how do we use these signs?

  • When a sentence ends with a question or exclamation, the closing signs are the sign at the end of the statement (!?) Therefore, it is not appropriate to put a period at the end (the point is already included by the sign: !?); thus, the word that follows it will always be written with an initial capital letter.

Example: ¿Qué hora es? Olvidé mi reloj en casa.

                 [What time is it? I left my watch at home]

  • If the statement does not end in a question or exclamation, other punctuation marks can be added, for example, comma (,), semicolon (;) or colon (:):


¡Tranquilo!, ¿vale?

[Calm down, okay?]

   «Aúllan como demonios cuando llega la noche; ¿sabes por qué?: para quebrar el silencio que los aterroriza»

[«They howl like demons when night comes; Do you know why? to break the silence that terrifies them»]

(Vargas Llosa La ciudad y los perros, 1962).

  • Finally, do not forget that if the word immediately before the beginning of a question or exclamation is also the end of a sentence, it must have a period.

Example: No sé por qué voy. ¿Por qué soy así, qué busco?

  [I don’t know why I’m going. Why am I like this? What am I looking for?]

(Leila Guerriero Domingo, 2020).

Remember that punctuation marks are intended to transcribe -in part- the pauses, tones, duration, and intensity of the melodic curve of the spoken language. Although it is impossible to transcribe oral discourse with all its nuances, punctuation marks help us a lot. Despite their limitations, they can interpret and harmonise a written text with the melody of orality. Think that punctuation marks are symbols that help us write the scores of our voices.

Want more Spanish tips?

Get them direct to your inbox

Sign up for tips and tricks to perfect your Spanish writing skills. You’ll be writing like a native in no time.

Free Trial until 30 September 2021: Our subscription programme does not start until 1 October 2021. So, as long as you provide us with a feedback you can use our site for free until noon 30 September 2021 (GMT)