We use cookies to improve the user experience of our website. Cookie Get More Information

Home » Culture » Spain » Languages » Letter Ñ

The Spanish Ñ

Spanish N

The Spanish N. Find out more about the history of the Spanish letters and how to write the letter n - ñ - with your non-Spanish keyboard.

España, puertorriqueño, limeño, año, montaña, peña…  and many other Spanish words contain the letter “ñ”.  It is letter that is a Hispanic symbol that has survived the stand of time and its share of problems, being ultimately the same issues that have reinforced the “n” as a Hispanic symbol.

Contrary to popular belief, the letter is not exclusive to the Spanish alphabet. The “ñ” is found in many others, although it is true that in many cases it is due to their contact with the Spanish language.  The languages that use the written “ñ” are Breton, Extremaduran, Astur-Leonese, Basque, Galician, Chamorro, Mapudungun, Filipino, Quechua, Wuarani, Crimean Tatar, Tetum and Wolof.

According to Ramón Gómez, great writer and creator of greguerías, or short statements similar to aphorisms or one-liner jokes used in Spanish and Latin American literature, the “ñ” is the “n” with a moustache. This greguería reminds us to pay special attention to the swung dash that crowns the letter “ñ” allowing us to distinguish it from the normal “n”.

The "ñ" is the graphic representation of the palatal nasal sound, which is represented by the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) as / ɲ /. The sound is made by exhaling air through the nose and making the vocal cords vibrate while the tongue presses against the hard palate of the mouth.

The different Romance languages adopted this sound of speech into their spelling in different ways: - nh - in Portuguese, - ny - in Aragonese and Catalan, - gn - in French and Italian, among many other linguistic solutions. In Spanish, the sound was incorporated into the alphabet with the symbol “ñ”.

What is the origin of this strange symbol? As in all languages, Spanish has evolved throughout history and has changed many of its written symbols from their Latin form in order to adapt to new sounds that appeared over the years. The letters: “W”, “J”, and “LL”, to name a few, were created for sounds that did not exist in Latin.

In the Middle Ages there was a scarcity of parchment in the Benedictine Monasteries where books were copied. The monks, who were dedicated to this labor, found it necessary to save space in their work. In order to do so, the words that contained - nn - in Latin began to appear with a single “n” topped with a smaller “n”, or swung dash, appearing as the symbol (~).  This is how the “ñ” came to be and, for example, how the Latin word annus evolved into año. This short-cut was also common in other languages such as Portuguese. The swung dash was adopted to represent vocal nasalization and, as a result, the word cão (dog) evolved from the Latin word canem (canine).

The Spanish "ñ" on Your Non-Spanish Keyboard

How can you write the “ñ” in your Spanish compositions if your keyboard lacks the letter? If you use an Apple operating system then you can type the “ñ” by pressing [Option]-n and then the “n” or “N”. For Windows, you must activate the num lock key and type ALT + 0241 or 164 for the “ñ” and ALT + 0209 or 195 for the “Ñ”.  In HTML, the code is: ñ and Ñ. Now you can reproduce the “ñ” on any keyboard.