There are few things that represents Spain, and Spanish language as well as the distinctive letter Ñ. Let´s have a look at its history and importance!
The history of the letter Ñ starts way back, around the 12th century, some few hundred years before Johan Gutenberg and the invention of the letterpress printing. This was the times of the Spanish scribes; whose job was to copy documents by hand. Instead of the modern-day paper, they used parchment to write on, a costly material made from specially prepared skins of animal, stretched and dried to get the correct thickness and form. The cost of the paper paired with the limited access made the scribes invent certain ways of shortening words to save money. See some examples below.
One of the more normal ways of shortening the words was by avoiding using double letters; like in the word “annus” (Latin for “year”). The way they indicated that they had removed a consonant was by scribbling a “virgulilla” (meaning “little comma”) over the letter before the removed one, making it “ãno” or “año”.
Over time, as most of the shorthand and ways of displaying it fell away, the letter ñ remained. So why was only the ñ left? As most of the other marks was interchangeable with other letter, the letter ñ had evolved its own nasal sound, making it especially useful in daily communication.
So how do we pronounce the Ñ?
English speaking Spanish students will sometimes be taught to pronounce it the same way as the “ny” in “canyon”. If you do it this way, nobody will complain, but to pronounce it perfectly the ñ should take slightly longer to pronounce.
When the ñ is pronounced precisely, make firmer contact with the alveolar ridge, that ridge just behind the top of the front teeth, than it does with "ny." Part of the tongue even briefly touches the front of the palate. The result is that ñ takes slightly longer to pronounce then "ny", more like a single sound than two sounds that blend together.
Try for yourself with these few examples
· cuñado (koo-nyah-doh) (brother-in-law)
· mañana (mah-nyah-nah) (tomorrow)
· niña (nee-nyah) (girl)
The Royal Spanish Academy and the Ñ
In the early 18th century, the Real Academia Española was founded (read more here) and shortly after they released their first dictionary. In this first edition though, you will not find the letter Ñ as a separate letter, but rather that all entries starting with the letter Ñ are listed at the end of the letter N. This was an important move though, which committed them to later implement the signature letter 15 of the Spanish alphabet, the letter Ñ.
The letter Ñ today
In the era of internationalization, the Ñ has mostly been left alone, except from an incident in 1991 where the European Community (EC) called for the repeal of a Spanish law that prohibited the sale of computer in Spain that did not include “all the characteristics of the Spanish writing system”, in other words, computers and keyboards without the letter Ñ. This claim came from the EC after a commission meant that the sale of these items would hinder a free market. The Spanish government took this very seriously, as a threat to the Spanish national identity, and in 1993 they won the case by availing itself on the Maastricht Treaty which allows exceptions of a cultural nature, allowing its sale.
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".
The letter Ñ is still today though absent in internet domains and email addresses, and for those of you who do not own a Spanish keyboard, it is at times exceedingly difficult to find and use the letter Ñ.
Today you will increasingly find organisations who use the letter Ñ or the “virgulilla” to make their entrance into the Spanish speaking market or strengthen their Spanish heritage. You can see a few examples below:
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