History of the letter eñe

Most people associate the letter eñe with the Spanish language. Yet it is actually present in no less than nine different alphabets spanning the globe, including the modern Latin alphabet, Galician alphabet, Asturian alphabet, Filipino alphabet and Guarani alphabet, among others. Additionally, it is currently used to represent the [ŋ] in the Tartar and Crimean languages, along with the Chamorro, Mandinka, Mapudungun and Tocharian languages. Considering the usage of eñe, it quickly becomes clear that the letter is present in a variety of geographical locations, and is used in languages stemming from different language families.

The tilde that sits atop the n to form what is now a separate letter in its own right, originally began as shorthand. It represented a double letter, in this case nn, which was used more frequently in Old Spanish. The word año, for example, was formerly anno and derived from the Latin word annvs. While this usage spread to many languages at the time, most of them eventually dropped the tilde. Meanwhile, Spanish retained its usage as shorthand for a double letter.

As far back as Medieval Latin usage, that tilde came to represent a nasal sound following a vowel (then also used on the letter m). The presence of eñe in Spanish has since expanded to all instances in which the palatal nasal sound is present, even when it does not represent a former double letter, such as with señor.

More recently, there has been cross-linguistic usage in native languages located in or near predominantly Spanish-speaking areas. These languages include Aymara, Quechua, Basque, Leonese, Yavapai, and Tetum. The orthographies of these native languages and others with cross-linguistic usage of eñe all have some basis in Spanish. It is also present in English words borrowed from Spanish, such as jalapeño, piñata, and piña colada.


Spanish Keyboard Layout – Latin America. The letter eñe is on the right of the L.

Alt key code for the letter eñe: ALT + 0241.

The Origin of the Word “Carnival”

The term Carnival (or Carnaval, in Spanish), has an etymology that can find little accord among those who explain its origins. Perhaps beginning with the question of whether the roots of the word date back to latin, and which terms they seem to derive from, several theories about the origin of Carnival persist, each with its own explanation.

Free image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 The timing of Carnival celebrations around the world also plays an important role in these theories, in particular as it relates to Christianity. Taking place in February, Carnival occurs just before Lent, a time in which Christians all over the world choose to fast, involving the avoidance of eating meat as dictated by the Church. In this context, one theory claims that the term is derived from the latin carne and vale, literally, saying goodbye to meat. Others who support this theory link it to the Italian expression, carne levare, with the same meaning.

In this explanation — often referred to as “folklore” by proponents of other theories — Carnival represents the final blowout before saying goodbye to eating meat. More broadly, a similar theory also states that it could represent a farewell to matters of the flesh, or carne, in general. The essence of the celebrations of Carnival, in their displays of excess and letting go, contrast with the mood of Lent in which the matters of the spirit outweigh the importance of worldly things.

An alternate origin involves the Roman festival Navigium Isidis (ship of Isis). In this traditional festival, the image of Isis was carried in a procession to the shore in order to bless the beginning of the sailing season. The procession involved elaborate masks and a wooden boat that was also carried. These characteristics could be the precursors of modern Carnival tradition involving floats and masks.

The etymological connection with this last theory rests in the term carrus, meaning car, as opposed to carne. The festival mentioned above was known by the latin term carrus navalis. It should be noted, however, that this festival was associated with both agricultural seasons (taking place just before the beginning of spring) and sexuality. As a result, it is also possible that when the festival became Christianized some time later, these two aspects were simply replaced by carne vale, a more appropriate beginning to Lent.

The Origin of Hashtag

This week we’re starting a new blog series called “The Origin of …” In it, we’ll be discussing the origin of a new word each week, including it’s translations or adaptations in other languages. We begin the series with a word that has become widely recognized among Internet parlance in a short amount of time: hashtag.

Going Viral

Most people recognize the hashtag (#) as a symbol used on Twitter to introduce a topic or conversation so that other Twitter users may search for, follow and contribute to the conversation. Of course now it is so popular that it’s not uncommon to see the symbol pop up on other social networks as well, but without the corresponding search function. Yet the hashtag was not an original creation from Twitter’s founders. The concept was originally thought up and given its ubiquitous symbol by a user experience designer working on Google+. That designer, Chris Messina, pitched the idea to Twitter’s guys in August of 2007 as a way to organize groups on the social network, giving him the nickname “hash godfather.”

Some reports indicate that the first time the hashtag was actually used was in relation to the miraculous landing of Flight 1549 on the Hudson River in early 2009. Among the many tweets flying around in relation to the event which had temporarily taken over the country’s news cycles, one user included #flight1549 at the end of their tweet. After that it was picked up by others tweeting about the incident, and quickly went viral.

Hashtag in Other Languages

There is always the question of whether new technology terms will be translated into other languages, or simply adopted as they are. As is to be expected, the French government has chosen to introduce their own word meaning hashtag in French. That word, mot-dièse, is not a literal translation, but rather means word and sharp — as in the designation of pitch in music, represented by a symbol similar to the pound (or hash) sign but without its inclination to the right.

It should also be noted, however, that not all French-speaking countries follow the lead of France when it comes to language developments. In francophone Quebec, Canada, for example, they prefer the term mot-clic.

But just as the French have done what they usually do — declare a new word to avoid adopting the English term — Spanish speakers have also done what they usually do in these situations. That is, they adopt the word with slight variations in spelling and pronunciation, effectively making it their own. Other words related to Twitter stand as examples of this: tuit (tweet), tuitear (verb of “tweet”), tuitero (a person who tweets), etc. In the case of hashtag, the literal translation would be etiqueta de almohadilla. And while this Spanish phrase is used in some areas, others choose to simply go with the original English term, adapting it to their own accent. As with French, it just depends on the region or the individual.

Origin of the word Brazil

The name Brazil is derived from the Portuguese word paubrasil, the name of an East Indian tree with reddish-brown wood from which a red dye was extracted. The Portuguese found a New World tree related to the Old World brasil tree when they explored what is now called Brazil, and as a result they named the New World country after the Old World tree. The word brasil is cognate with French brésil, Old French berzi and bresil, Old Italian verzino, and Medieval Latin brezellum, brasilium, bresillum, braxile. The many Latin forms suggest a non-Latin, non-Romance origin, as in an East Indian term.

Brasil tree