Just as we saw last month with the letter M, I am happy to tell you that the pronunciation of the letter N is the same in Spanish as in English. If you actually listen to the way Spaniards speak, you will notice that practically all the consonant sounds are lighter or softer than in English which make them difficult for us to hear at times.
With a simple phrase like “no pasa nada” it is always the vowel sounds that will come over clearest, while the mouth glides over the consonants. Even though we pronounce the letter the same, the actual sound produced can still be a little hard to pick up. It’s just a question of tuning in to this and getting used to it over a period of time.
As usual there are plenty of words beginning with the letter N that remind us of their equivalents in English. First we will look at a whole group of words which are related to each other. These are interesting because they show us how words are built up and also how we can sometimes guess at the meanings of words from their roots.
We’ll start with these three: “Nación” (Nation), “nacional” (nacional), “nacionalidad” (nationality). Notice particularly that the Spanish ending “-dad” is the equivalent of “-ity” in English and there are scores of words that work in the same way. Then there is “nacionalismo” (nationalism) and “nacionalista” (nationalist). Also related to this group of words is “nativo” (native). In English we usually associate this word with primitive people, but in Spanish it simply means someone born in a particular country. If you were ever to advertise your services as a native English-speaking English teacher (you could of course be Scottish, Welsh, Irish, American or Australian!) you would use the phrase “profesor nativo” for a man or “profesora nativa” for a woman. Then we have the word “natural” (natural) which in every day speech translates as “fresh” as in “zumo de naranja natural”, (fresh orange juice), but it also refers to the place someone comes from. In slightly more formal speech or writing we come across “Juan García, natural de Murcia”, (Juan Garcia, originally from Murcia, or native of Murcia).
Within the same family, but moving away from words that translate as N words in English, we have “nacer” (to be born). To say “I was born” is “nací” and he or she was born “nació”. Where were you born would be “¿Dónde naciste?” Grammatically speaking we are moving into the realms of irregular past tenses, but the words are useful enough for us to learn them without necessarily understanding the grammar. And finally we have word “nato” meaning “born” as in: “es un músico nato” (he is a born musician).
Now going on to other N words which link with English equivalents, we have “necesidad” another “-dad” word meaning “necessity”, “neutral” (neutral) – be careful with the pronunciation, a combination of the Spanish “e” and “u” with the “e” being the stronger sound, “normal” (normal), “nostalgia” (nostalgia), “nutrición” (nutrition), “norteamericano” (North American). This is an interesting one in that the Spanish differentiate clearly between the continent of America and the various countries belonging to it. When we say “American” we usually mean someone from the US, whereas for the Spanish “americano” means someone from any part of North or South America. A Spanish friend might tell you they have a “primo americano” coming to visit, in which case expect him to come from Cuba, Venezuela or another South or Central American country. The word for someone specifically from the US (Estados Unidos) is “estadounidense”.
An interesting “estranged cousin” is the Spanish word “nervioso”. This can mean nervous in the English sense of timid or fearful, but is more often used to mean nervy, agitated or energetic. It is the same as when we say in English “he has a lot of nervous energy”. If a parent says to a teacher: “Mi hijo es muy nervioso”. (My son is very active or energetic) the teacher usually expects the worst!
Now here are two rather picturesque N words which I thought you might like. One is Adam’s apple which is “nuez de Adán” (Adam’s walnut!) and the name of a flower “nomeolvides” which translates “don’t forget me” and that’s exactly what it is, a “forget-me-not”.
To finish off, here are two saying containing the letter N. “Los niños y los locos dicen las verdades” literally “Children and fools cannot lie.” I’m not sure how true this actually is, but the equivalent phrase in English is “Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings”.
Another short saying which is very common is “perder el norte”, literally “to lose the north”. This comes from the idea of navigation and orientating oneself by the North Star. However, we use it to means someone who loses their way in a more personal sense. The colloquial equivalent in English is simply “to lose it”. When some poor soul is getting everything out of perspective and getting upset for no reason, we say “ha perdido el norte” – he’s lost the north on his compass and his (or her) world is in disarray!
Jane Cronin, Spanish classes and talks. www.janecronin.eu Tel: 968 18 32 58.