August 11, 2019 100

How Spanish got its ñ – the story behind that “n with a tilde”

How Spanish got its ñ – the story behind that “n with a tilde”


This isn’t even a full word, but can you guess
which language this is? Chances are, you can! Thanks to that very Spanish letter ñ. Hold on there. Once upon a time, this n with a tilde wasn’t
so Spanish. Take it apart; you’ll find the tale of an
ordinary mark that evolved into an extraordinary letter. Spain has a national hero. A really old one. Like, almost 1000 years old. They call him El Cid. Or “El Thid”? Look, Spain is notorious for lithping its
thees, but out here in the Western Hemisphere and even over there in Andalucía it’s “El
Sid”. El Cid did the stuff a good national hero’s
supposed to do. He wielded a legendary weapon. He fought cunningly for various factions but
always kept bigger goals in mind. He won the hearts of the peasants. Oh, and he loved Babieca, his trusty steed. One legend tells us how they met. When he was young, su padrino, his godfather,
took him out to pick his very own horse. He was treated to a parade of beautiful stallions. “Go on, pick one. The very best one you see!” Somehow, El Cid peered through all the splendid
manes and caught sight of the most awkward horse in the bunch. “This one. I want this one.” Godfather couldn’t believe it. “Babieca! Fool! Why’d you pick that one?” “Oh, Babieca. Yes, I think his name shall be Babieca. He’ll be a good horse.” Ah, Spain. You’ve spent centuries weaving tales like
this about your beloved Cid. The most epic of these epic tales is a poem
written in the 12th century: Cantar de Mio Cid, Song of My Cid. Sure there’s this older Latin history written
closer to the events, but the people, they like the epic poem. That poem was preserved for us in one single,
rare manuscript. And if you want to read this medieval manuscript,
you need to know Old Spanish. Not just Spanish? No, Old Spanish. Different words with different meanings, different
spelling and pronunciation, different grammar. But before you can jump into any of that,
you’re blocked by this scribe’s handwriting. The problem isn’t really his handwriting. He was a fine scribe, neat and tidy. The problem is this script is not your script. Yes, it’s the Latin alphabet, but even once
you adjust to the letters, there’s something strange. Get your nose close enough to smell the paper. Actually, the pergamino, parchment. Close enough to see the little squiggles. Interesting thing about parchment back in
the day. Scribes didn’t go to the store and pick up
packs for pennies a page. This bookmaking stuff was a very expensive
endeavor. Partly because of that, ancient scribes had
started coming up with ways to save paper but keep their manuscripts pretty. One trick was to make words shorter. With hundreds of years of scribal practice
behind them, medieval scribes had amassed a treasure chest of symbols. They can get fancy, but here’s a simple one
you’ll see all the time: the titulus. What is it for? Well, look at the letters below it. Sometimes they’re shortened words. Scribes were abbreviating everything from
sacred names to run-of-the-mill pronouns. When they did this though, they left a nifty
overmark as a hint. It has a more specific use, though. Look at the words mandó “commanded”, and
also don “lord” and donna “lady” from Latin dominus and domina. The scribe could spell them out, or he could
remove one consonant and write this titulus on top of the letter before it. Notice which consonant got removed? The nasal “n”. Writing n’s on top of previous letters instead
of inline isn’t something we can blame the Cid for. It had been trending for centuries, for both
Latin nasals, n’s and m’s. Good luck getting through too many medieval
manuscripts without it. N’s above vowels, n’s on top of consonants,
n’s everywhere! But these n’s were still optional. Take the word for “year”, annus, which had
two n’s side by side. That word became Spanish anno. As a scribe, you could take that second n
and write it as a titulus above the first. But you could just as well take the first
n and have it hop on top of a. Or just leave them side by side. Over time, though, the other marks fell away
and ñ, the former double-n, was left all alone in Spain. Seemingly one of a kind. Why did only this one remnant stick around? Well, it was useful. The other nasal marks were interchangeable
with a full-on n. But Latin double-n evolved to have its own
pronunciation in Spanish: “ny”, “eñe”. This leftover titulus isn’t as lonely as it
first seems, though. Just next door, Portugal found the same mark
very useful for writing nasal vowels. In Modern Portuguese, they still use it, not
above n though, but to mark nasal a and o. ã – õ – ñ Oh, and here’s a fact-drop to impress your
friends. The name for this mark, “titulus”, became
“tilde”, which got borrowed into English as “tilde”. In Spanish though, “tilde” doesn’t just mean
this thing. It’s the word for any special mark or diacritic. Including the accents. But today’s ñ isn’t an n with a funny mark
on it. Not in Spanish! One more change had to be made: an image change. The Real Academia Española, Royal Spanish
Academy, got together in the early 1700’s to organize and oversee Spanish vocabulary. (Time to impose some order on this language!) Their dictionary’s the gold standard, but
back in 1726 the group was barely taking a first stab at this dictionary business with
their Diccionario de autoridades. Now, you won’t find ñ listed as a letter
on the spines or title pages of any of its 6 volumes, but entries that start with ñ
are listed separately after n. It’s a move the Academy has since fully committed to. Today, ñ has its own seat at the Spanish
alphabet table (número 15!), and it’s so quintessentially Spanish that it’s become
a symbol of Hispanic culture. Here, I just localized my channel for Spain
and Latin America! You laugh, but that is how some companies
do it. So what were in El Cid’s day ordinary marks
on parchment found a way to outlast the rest of them and become a full-fledged Spanish
letter, a letter that only catches the occasional reflection of its younger days in scattered
relatives from not-too-distant lands. Stick around for more linguistic stories and
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