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

  1. Aprender en idioma inglés sobre historia española, gracias creo que no soy el único si leo los comentarios.

  2. It's not called "Old Spanish". It's name is Mozárabe, since is not Spanish. It's a mix between Arabic and something resembling Gallego.

  3. Tilde it's just de name for the graphic accent. Example: Ú in útero. The bowel on the tonic syllable is marked by this graphic mark, depending if it follows certain rules or not.
    Ü. That thing on the 'u' is called DIERESIS, not tilde.
    That thingy on the Ñ is called virguilla.

    Please, I know you already do a lot of work, but do more research. You mess up at basic stuff.

  4. Tamil also has the ñ sound. Given Tamil chieftains traded with Europeans, maybe there was connection here?

  5. Apparently Spanish-speaking programmers have trouble when writing code with just ASCII because ano means something very different from año, so they usually write anno for year. I guess that's just truer to the original word anyways.

  6. This is so beautiful. I've always loved the study of the history of languages.. Big fat thumbs up…??

  7. In English:
    Pinata – Menu – Daniel- unusual – news – newt – ingenuity – union – communion -reunion – knew – aneurism – onion – canyon – Entrepreneur – companion – Spaniards – lasagna – annuity – News – Manual – Manuel – Menu – Continue – Insinuate – Minion – senior –
    Manuscript – numerous – Inuit – cognac – annual – venue – Strenuous – innuendo – junior- senior – nuisance – tenure – opinion – monument – enumerate – Avenue – innuendo – numerology…. I pronounce these with ñ in its place.

  8. Question and I would really like to know if anyone here knows: I know that the accent circonflexe (^) on top of letters in French has often come to replace the s in its roots. E.g. côte = costa = coast, hôtel = hostel/hospital = some place with hospitality, fête = festus = feast. Are the origins of this similar? Pergament-saving symbols?

  9. Gracias Cid Campeador, sin tí no hubiésemos tenido la palabra más puertorriqueña. Puñeta !

  10. For the people arguing about if the symbol above the ñ is an accent or not, the RAE defines "virgulilla" (the name of that symbol) as the accent of the letter Ñ.

  11. god thank for having ñ because año means year and with out ñ it would be ano and that means anus

  12. We don't use "tilde" for everything. The "tilde" in de "ñ" is called:"virgulilla" and the "ü" is called:"diéresis"

  13. No, the ~ symbol is NOT called a tilde. A tilde is the symbol which is putted over a vocal sometimes when it is a tonic vocal and it coincide with the accentuation rules. The ~ symbol is called "Virguilla"

  14. Coño my dude, your pronunciation in both languages, editing skills and content is more than muy bueno. Gonna sub if you don't mind.

  15. One important fact is that the Ñ symbol it's called Virgulilla and is regularly misunderstood by people in the same category as "Tildes" even by some dictionarys , so if someone ask you , what's the name of the stick of the Ñ the right answer is Virgulilla.

  16. Nadie (Nobody):

    Ninguna puta alma en la Tierra (No fucking soul in the Earth):

    España y Latinoamérica: AÑO means "Year" y ANO means "Anus"


  17. actually, the two points on top of a vocal are not called tilde, but ''diéresis''. At least here in argentina is called that way.

  18. The way ñ is used in Spanish is the same way we it in Filipino… Also it is part of the alphabet…

  19. Filipinos picked up the letter to write proper names of Spanish origin, one of the legacies of 300+year Spanish rule in our country. And we don't just write it as simply an "n", like "Las Piñas" and not "Las Pinas", and "Santo Niño" and not "Santo Nino". In the olden times of the typewritrr people would just overimpose a dash over "n" to write "ñ" (we use American rather than Spanish typewriter), and it persisted well into early computer era (computerized TV credits just put a dash over "n") until people learned to use Alt+165 or Alt+166. Philippines uses a US standard keyboard by the way, hence there is no "ñ" there directly.

    The Filipino standard alphabet has Ñ. Hence A B C D E F G H I J K L M N Ñ NG O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z. If you wonder why the digraph NG is treated as one single letter, it's the legacy of the ancient Tagalog script called "Baybayin", which I am waiting a video of from NativeLang.

  20. I had a professor at the Unversidad Complutense de Madrid in 1965 who pronounced El Cid as El Thith. Of course, he was from Madrith.

  21. I hate to break it to you but the titulus has been in use in languages such Arabic since at least the 700s. Further Arab moors conquered Spain. It’s more likely that the titulus is a remnant of that time. Plus Arabic script has always used a symbol on top of a letter to indicate a repeat, I.e, DoNNa or caRRot, so there has been a great deal of influence. Finally, remember that Spain was pretty much a backwater forgotten province of Rome occupied by a people so charming they are known to history as the Vandals. So these add-ons came from the Arabs. More plausible than scribes purportedly wanting to save space.

  22. Great vid, but that's not how you pronounce El Cid, it's always THid no matter where you are within Spain.

  23. As an English speaker, whenever I see or hear that 15th letter in the Spanish alphabet, I always hear it as ny. Like the second n turned into a y.

  24. Tnks for subtittles xd
    Muchas gracias man
    No entederas esto haci que
    Encontre tu video: estsndo a punto de ahorcar "the duck" o ganzo

  25. That "accent" is actually called "virgulilla". It's not an accent, ñ is a different letter, it's not "n with accent"

  26. ¡Excellente & Interesante! Ñ now has a flag. Linked your informative video to my blog! Good Jawb!

  27. And now, I've commandeered it to represent the velar nasal /ŋ/ in my reformed spelling system for English. What's wrong with the traditional 'ng' digraph, you ask? It's ambiguous. There's no reliable way to tell when the 'g' should be pronounced separately, as in "finger," versus when it's just there to mark the preceding nasal as velar, as in "singer." My proposal solves this problem with "fingør" and "siñør."

  28. That was mindblowing for me! I'm brazilian and I had no clue ~ came from that, let alone de it's portuguese name, til, comes from tilde.

  29. actually CNN in spanish use the tilde above both Ns, so its something like CÑÑ

    And in Japanese some people pronounce the syllables nya & nyo as ña & ño in spanish.

  30. Just a subtle correction: I wouldn't say the spanish are notorious for lisping there "th"s, but rather that this is the original way that phoneme is pronounced. Bear in mind that iberian spanish is the original dialect and south american spanish and its s-sounding "th"s came later. El Cid was pronounced with "th" almost 500 years before spanish was ever even spoken in south america? So, yeah… a bit presumptuous

  31. Tilde is for [ ~ ] and [ ` ] (I couldn't find the exact tilde we use because I'm on my tablet but that's the closest one. The correct one is just the same but facing the other way as in "á, é, í, ó, ú".) But the 2 dots on top of a letter (which we use ONLY in the letter "u") are not called "tilde", we call it DIÉRESIS —> [ Ü , ü ] as in the word "ungüento" which means oinment .

  32. Fun fact, in Brazilian text messages we use ñ as way to shorten the word "não", which means "no" and has this nasal sound, just like in this old parchments hahaha

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