The letter Ñ should never be confused with the letter N, under any circumstances. We foreigners are inclined to think of Ñ as simply N with a squiggle on the top, but it is in fact a completely separate letter with a distinct sound and which therefore creates completely different words. The Ñ is unique to Spanish and is often regarded as a symbol of “Spanishness”.
I have always been amazed at how easily the Spanish have let go of some of its other characteristic symbols in order to comply with the rest of the world, such as the peseta and those great old car number plates which told you where the driver came from. However, the attitude to the Ñ has been completely different. There was little short of public outrage when some shining light in the computer world proposed that the Ñ should be removed from computer keyboards, to be replaced by a combination of the two letters “ny”. This might have facilitated trade and world relations from every angle, but there was no way the Spanish would countenance the move and it was abandoned.
Despite this historic victory, until very recently is has not been possible to use the Ñ in email and website addresses. However, with even more pressure and lobbying, this has also now been resolved. I used to listen to a radio programme containing the word “mañana” and I always felt rather sorry for the presenters as they read their email address to listeners with the banal sounding “manana”. It felt as though they had been robbed of their dignity in some way. The whole row about the Ñ has really coincided in recent years with a recognition of the importance of the Spanish language on the world stage, so well done them for sticking to their guns, that’s what I say!
Perhaps this little summary gives you more of an idea as to why the Ñ is important, quite apart from the fact that if you get it wrong, you are liable not to be understood, or to be saying something quite different. Not only that, but there are many Spanish names containing the letter, such as the first name Iñigo and the surname Nuñez, and you know how fussy people are about their names.
It is quite uncommon for a word to start with the letter Ñ in Spanish, but out of curiosity I have found a few for you. They are not the most useful words you’ll ever learn. “ñandú” means “rhea” which is a South American ostrich, “ñato” means “flat-nosed”, “ñoño” means “simple, timid or insecure” and “ñu” is “gnu”. If you have ever seen the words “ñam ñam” in a cartoon bubble, it means, and rather sounds like “yum, yum”, which also happens to be the name of a fast food outlet. According to my dictionary quite a number of Ñ words are South American, although I’ve no idea why that should be. Apparently over there “ñaño” means “spoilt or pampered”, “ñata” means “nose” and “ñeque” means “strong”. I’ve just noticed that “ñuco” means a “dehorned animal” in Andalucia. The mind boggles.
So much for words beginning with Ñ, but of course the letter Ñ is far more common in the middle of a word, so it seems rather more fruitful to find some of these examples, and I have concentrated on cases where we might get our Ñ and our N confused.
“Cuna” for example means “cot or cradle”, but “cuña” means a “wedge or slot”. “Cuña” is also the word used for a “space of radio or TV advertising”. “Piña” means “pineapple”, whereas “pino” means “pine”. “Maña” means “skill or ingenuity”, whereas “maná” means “manna” and “mano” means “hand”. “Campaña” means “campaign”, whilst “campana” means “bell”. Then we have the popular confusion between “año” and “ano”. The first one means “year” and is used when we talk about someone’s age. “How old are you?” is “¿Cuántos años tienes?” (How many years do you have?), which doesn’t sound quite right in English, but perfectly okay in Spanish. “Ano” on the other hand means “anus” (I thought I’d come right out and say it). I couldn’t count the number of times I have told my students not to ask people “¿Cuántos anos tienes?” or to congratulate their Spanish friends with “Feliz cumpleanos” instead of “Feliz compleaños”, the latter meaning “Happy Birthday”, and the former something quite untranslatable! Nobody ever listens to me of course until they embarrass themselves in public, which serves them right as far as I’m concerned.
And so to a couple of sayings with words that contain the letter Ñ. “Las malas compañías son como la fruta podrida” which means “bad company is like rotten fruit”, presumably because the rot can spread, and not just because it smells. Here’s another one which is extremely popular: “El mundo es un pañuelo” – “The world is a handkerchief” which is the Spanish way of saying “It’s a small world” – something we Brits notice all the time when we meet people from just down the road from our Aunty Maud’s sweetshop in Northupsville. You see, I do listen to people!
Jane Cronin, Spanish classes and talks. www.janecronin.eu Tel: 968 18 32 58