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or The Perils of Ignoring the Squiggle
The first thing the respectable reader has to know is that this article is not about surgical procedures to correct incontinence or some form of kinky porn. This article is about the faux pas that many English speakers make when in spoken or written form they enthusiastically try out their Spanish and forget about or deliberately ignore the squiggle. OK, what the heck am I talking about? I am talking about the wavy line symbol (~) that goes on top of the letter "n" turning it into the Spanish letter "ñ". This wavy line symbol is called a "tilde" but here we will call it the "squiggle". The letter "ñ" has a sound that can be best approximated by the sound of the letters "ny" in the English word "canyon" and in Spanish it is called the "eñe": here we will pronounce it as "enye". Allow me a small digression. The "ñ" is quite a remarkable letter; it is the only letter in the Spanish language that is not derived from Latin. The "ñ" arose out of the custom of medieval scribes to abbreviate double letters like "aa" or "nn" in words by writing a single letter with a line over it (hence ã or ñ). As the years went by the only letter that survived this custom was the "ñ". The "ñ" has also become a symbol of the Spanish identity so much so that when the European Community in the nineties enacted a regulation mandating that the letter be dropped from computer keyboards sold in Spain there was uproar. Both the Spanish Royal Academy of the Language and Nobel Prize winners weighed in and the regulation was repealed. But let's get back to our main topic. The woes of English speakers with the "ñ" are probably due to the fact that this is the only letter that the English and Spanish alphabets do not share, thus many English speakers just write it or pronounce it as an "n". This is a bad idea as it generates nonsensical words or even worse, words that mean something entirely different.
A monumental and historical example of this practice in action involves the fourth largest state of the United States; Montana. Have you ever wondered what a "montana" is? Join the club. The actual word is meaningless and was generated when the squiggle was dropped from the word "montaña which in Spanish means "mountain". Similarly dropping the squiggle from some common words like jalapeño, piña colada and piñata yield the nonsense words jalapeno, pina colada and pinata. If you are talking to a Spanish speaker he or she may take a while to figure out what you are saying. But what about the words that change meaning when you drop the squiggle? I have done some research. I took the 2,600 plus words in the Spanish language that have "ñ" in them and used the "replace all" function of my word program to replace their "ñ" with an "n" and then I counted how many of the resulting words were still recognized by the Spanish spell check program. It turns out that 198 or 8.74% or the words still have a meaning when you subject them to this "humiliation". Fortunately for English speakers many of these words are archaic, or slang, or their meaning is the same whether you write them with "ñ" or "n", or their use is confined to some specific countries of Latin America or regions of Spain. Because of this many of these words are not featured in all Spanish dictionaries. However, enough of these words exist out there to create a sizable linguistic minefield for the imprudent English speaker. Let's take a look. You may brag to someone that you are going out to "cañear", which can mean that you are going out drinking, but if you drop the squiggle and tell them you are going to "canear" that means you are going to grow some gray hairs. Gray hairs are "canas".
Somewhat related if you tell someone you are going to do a "cantiña" this means you are going to compose a brief poem with a musical score, but if you drop the squiggle and tell them you are going to do a "cantina" you are telling them you are going to do a "tavern". Hey, happy drinking! If you are going to teach something you are going to "enseñar", but change this to "ensenar" and this can mean you are planning to hide something next to your breast. Make sure the students are not looking! If you describe and extremely religious woman as "pechoña" this means that you consider she exaggerates on her acts of devotion. But if you describe her as "pechona" this means she has big breasts. Praise the lord! If you let someone know you need to change a "pañal" you are saying you want to change a diaper. But if you tell them you want to change a "panal" this means you want to change the honeycomb: sweet. A man who sells cloths is a "pañero" but if you describe this as a "panero" you are saying he eats a lot of bread. "Pan" means bread whereas "paño" means cloth.. You may refer to a woman as a "picaña" which means a scheming person, but if you refer to her as a "picana" you are saying she is an instrument of torture that releases electric discharges into body parts: ouch! If you say to someone you have a "tiña" you are saying you have a disease produced by certain parasites in the skin of the cranium. But if you change this to "tina" you are telling them you have a bathtub. Imagine the look on their faces: "and your point is"?
If you tell militant environmental extremists that you like eating "toñina" you are telling them you like to eat tuna. This at most may get you into an argument. But change this to "tonina" and get ready to run because you are telling them you like eating dolphin. When you tell someone you are going to make a "comuña" you are saying you are going to prepare some cattle feed. Change that to "comuna" and they will smile and ask you if they can join you because you have just told them you are going to found a commune. "Peña" is a common last name in Latin America and Spain and it means "rock". So say you meet someone called "Alejandro Peña" (literally Alexander Rock), if you write or say his name as "Alejandro Pena" it changes to Alexander Sorrow". "Pena" means sorrow and that is a depressing last name to have. Related to the above the term "peñol" means a mountain with lots of rocks and it can also used as a masculine name but "penol" is a term that can be interpreted to mean the tip of the penis. It's not nice to call someone a "dickhead". If you notice that the hair of a woman who is wearing it in a bun becomes undone you may tell her to fix her bun or "moño" but if you ask her to fix her "mono" you are telling her to fix her "monkey". Just pray that she doesn't think the worst. A woman missing a finger may be described as "ñoca" but if you say she is a "noca" you are saying she is a crustacean. That is one heck of a compliment. A man who is a dreamer can be described as a "soñador" but if you call him a "sonador" you are saying he is a noise maker. Don't think so loud!
If you are going to "mañosear" you are going to act with cunning and vice whereas if you are going to "manosear" you are going to touch something repeatedly with you hands until it may become tarnished. No comments. These are several of the pitfalls confronting English speakers that choose to ignore the all important "ñ", but we still have one more case to review. This case is in fact the most common and shocking example of what happens when you ignore the squiggle. It happens towards the end of each year as tens of thousands of English speakers proudly try out their Spanish sending their friends and acquaintances in the Spanish-speaking world their well wishes for the New Year. What they intend to write is "Feliz Año Nuevo" which means "Happy New Year" but what they end up writing upon ignoring the squiggle is "Feliz Ano Nuevo" which means "Happy New Anus". As you have probably figured out "ano" means anus in Spanish. To learn more about the "ñ" as well as how to type it using your word processor see the references at the end. So there you have it. Spanish is a beautiful and romantic language but it has its nuances. There are many other issues we have not touched upon that make communication difficult like accents, verb tenses, the differences in the Spanish spoken in one country compared with others or wacky translations like for example saying "estoy embarazada" (I am pregnant) when you mean to say "I am embarrassed". But the proximity of the Latin American continent to the United States and out shared history makes it all but necessary that we understand each other and master the tools we will require to achieve this. So next time you try out your Spanish please remember not to forget the squiggle! Of course, as we approach this new year I hope all your hopes will be fulfilled and on behalf of all Spanish-speakers I wish you a:
FELIZ AÑO NUEVO! REFERENCES 1) Wikipedia article on the "ñ", go to: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%91 2) Where did the Ñ come from? By Gerald Erichsen, About.com http://spanish.about.com/cs/historyofspanish/f/tilde_origins.htm 3) List of words with "ñ", go to: http://personal.telefonica.terra.es/web/flxcardona/palabras_con_let ra_egne.htm