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!

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)