Many of us throw up our hands in horror at the way the youth of today (and some of us oldies as well) abbreviate language whilst texting or “whatsapping”. This is just as common in Spanish as it is in English. For example, “q” replaces “que” and “x” replaces “por”, so therefore the word “porque” (because) is conveniently reduced to two characters – “xq”. Text speak is really a subject for another article, but the principle in itself is often condemned as something that will do away with literacy in the younger generation.
However, many centuries ago, when parchment was an expensive item and abbreviations were needed to save money rather than time, many Latin transcripts were similarly full of shortcuts and abbreviations. Often, when a letter was missed from a word it was indicated by a wavy mark over the previous letter. There are thousands of examples of this in medieval texts, where the mark would appear over a whole range of different letters. One of the positions where this often occurred was when there was a double “n”, in for example the Latin word “annus” meaning “year”. Along with the issue of spelling, there was also a tendency to pronounce the second “n” as a more nasal sound. As you have probably already realized, this eventually led to the Spanish word “anno” becoming “año” with the wavy line indicating the missing “n” and the pronunciation approximating the modern “ñ” sound.
Over the years, as Castilian Spanish became established as a language in its own right, this particular use of the “ñ” was kept in the language, whilst other letters with similar waving signs (as distinct from accents which is another issue) were phased out. However, in modern Portuguese we find exactly the same squiggly line over the letters “a” and “o”. These have exactly the same origin and also indicate a nasal pronunciation, in this case of these two vowels in certain word positions. However, in Portuguese they do not represent separate letters of the alphabet.
In the early 18th century when the Real Academia Española came into existence to organise the spelling and grammar of the Spanish language, it created an alphabetical dictionary, in which it was decided to order the “ñ” after the “n” in all the listings. This set the standard for the subsequent adoption of the “ñ” into the Spanish language as a letter in its own right rather than as “n with an accent” as non-Spanish speakers sometimes assume.
Nowadays this unique letter has come to represent Spanish language and culture, and the squiggly line is even incorporated into logos and illustrations to represent “Spanishness”. It also has its own representation on the Spanish keyboard. In fact the RAE resisted strong pressure from the European Union in 1991 to eliminate the “ñ” from Spanish keyboards as a move to open up the computer sales market throughout the EU. One last piece of useless information: the squiggle on the “ñ” actually has a name other than “squiggle” “wavy line” or “accent”. It is actually called a “virgulilla”. Now that’s a bit of trivia to bore your friends with.