English language speakers tend to learn how to pronounce Spanish quite easily. One of my former teachers used to say that Spanish is a phonetic language. I suppose what he meant was that each letter in the Spanish alphabet more or less represents a phoneme. This gentleman was quite right.

All the same, Spanish has a letter that doesn’t exist in English: la eñe. Pronounced as a blended form of an “n” and a “y”, there’s no sound like it in the English language either, but it does exist in other continental languages like French, Italian and Portuguese (and maybe in a few others that I’m not aware of).

Now what is a phoneme? It’s the smallest linguistic unit capable of bringing about a change in meaning. When I teach both Spanish and English as a foreign language, I use minimal pairs, which are pairs of words with different meaning in which the main distinctive element is just a single phoneme. Case in point, in English we’ve got the words sheep and ship, for example. In Spanish, rata (rat) and rato (a while). Both cases show a change in vowel sounds. You want consonants, you said? Of course! Sip and zip in English; mesa (table) and meta (aim, goal).

I’d better not bore you out of your head, dear reader, with more tedious examples of minimal pairs because I know you get my drift 🙂

In any case, what if I were to tell any beginner in Spanish that something as visually and graphically negligible were to bring about a change in meaning? The ˜on top of the eñe and the ´ defined as el acento do bring about a change in meaning. Here’s a very graphic example you’ll never forget:

If you ever thought a small typographic detail made no difference, think again...
If you ever thought a small typographic detail made no difference, think again…
Nothing like la eñe & los acentos in Spanish!
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