Is it possible to dream in Spanish without the letter ñ? Imagine our world without being able to strike a piñata, without the fall season or “otoño,” without our children, or “niñitos,” playing in the yard – and without our respectful greeting to a familiar elder woman: “Good morning, doñita.”
Or more serious matters: a world where the mole sauce would lack taste, as there would be no jalapeños; cows would explode because the word for milking – “ordeñar” – would be missing; also missing would be beachside “piña coladas,” and perhaps there would be no festive “caribeños” – Caribbean folk.
The issue is that this letter – ñ – is more than just an “n” with a top hat, or a tilde, as a professor of Spanish would say. The ñ is the epitome of the Spanish language; it is the identity of the Hispanic tongue. (Note that the letter ñ is pronounced in Spanish roughly the way the letters N and Y sound when next to one another in the English word “canyon.”)
Even Gabriel García Márquez, winner of a Nobel prize in literature, once said that the “‘ñ’ is not an archeological piece of trash, but quite the opposite: “a cultural leap from one language which left others behind when it expressed in a single letter a sound that other languages continue to make with two.”
In the United States, the defense of the ñ has been led by the Cervantes Institute, a cultural center in New York that is sponsored by the Spanish government, and by the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. Both entities have taken the “eñe” as their standard and in a way as their symbol.
Argentinean composer and author, María Elena Walsh, a fervent defender of the ñ, often repeated: “Ladies (‘señoras’), gentlemen (‘señores’), colleagues (‘compañeros’), and beloved children (‘niños’) – do not let them take away our ñ!”
The ñ and last names
The letter ñ also has a bearing on the tradition and heritage of Hispanic surnames. Its fading role is the result of Anglicization. Thus, we often see Munoz instead of Muñoz, Ibanez rather than Ibáñez, Carreno instead of Carreño, instead of Peña we get Pena, and the list goes on and on.
The Royal Spanish Academy has not stated a position regarding the Anglicisms, which it views as a trait of the English language. “The issue of Anglicisms is very difficult,” said Víctor García de La Concha, academy director from 1998 to 2010, during a conference in 2006. “It’s part of the phenomenon of globalization.”
For now, if one wants the Spanish-language to have a tomorrow – a mañana – then the ñ must be defended as a symbol that identifies speakers of Spanish.
Jose Emilio Pacheco, a Mexican poet, essayist and translator who in 2009 he was awarded the Queen Sofia Prize for Latin American Poetry and the Cervantes Prize, wrote a poem – in Spanish – in honor of the letter.
While the poem itself states that it cannot be translated, included below (with apologies to the author) is an edited version of a translation that appeared in a news report in 2009.
In defense of the ‘eñe’
This animal that growls with the eñe of ‘uña’ (fingernail or claw)
is completely untranslatable.
It would lose the ferocity of its voice
and the eloquence of its claws
in any foreign language.”