Google doodle celebrates ñ: Why one letter is so significant

The artwork marks ‘Spanish Language Day’

Justin Vallejo
New York
Friday 23 April 2021 18:16
Google doodle celebrates ñ: Why one letter is so significant
Leer en Español

Beyond just piñata or piña colada, the letter ñ is entrenched with the history of the Spanish languages across the globe.

On Thursday 23 April, the Google doodle celebrates the origins and influences of the letter that looks like another but sounds like no other.

Pronounced "enye”, the ñ is the only letter in the 27-letter Spanish alphabet that originated in Spain, as noted in the doodle artwork by Barcelona guest artist Min: "The Ñ’s story started with 12th-century Spanish scribes. While hand-copying Latin manuscripts, these scholars of the Middle Ages devised a plan to save time and parchment by shortening words with double letters," it says.

"They combined the two figures into one and scrawled on top a tiny ‘n’ — a symbol now known as a ‘virgulilla’ or tilde — to signify the change. Thus, ‘annus’, Latin for ‘year’, evolved into the Spanish ‘año’.”

In the 800-odd years since writers first began using ñ as a shorthand symbol, it travelled the world on the decks of Spanish ships from the Iberian peninsula to the Americas and as far as the Philippines.

Distinct in sound and service, the ñ has done more for the Spanish heritage and identity than just give its alphabet a single-letter edge over its 26-letter English counterpart.

It appears in more than 17,7000 words in the Spanish language used by 586 million people and spoken as the official language in 20 countries. Its influence goes beyond the Spanish language, however, and has been absorbed into other dialects, like Tagalog.

The letter was officially adopted by the Royal Spanish Academy's dictionary in 1803, and was enshrined into law when, in 1993, Spain legislated its inclusion on computer keyboards due to its cultural significance.

That significance was recognised in 2010 by the United Nations, when it declared 23 April its annual "Spanish Language Day" to celebrate one of the most unique characters from one of the most commonly spoken languages in the world.

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