3.10 The letters “N” and “Ñ”

Learning Objectives

In this chapter you will:

  • Learn the features of the sounds /n/ and /ɲ/.
  • Contrast these two sounds.
  • Learn what minimal pairs are.
  • Practice minimal pairs with /n/ and /ɲ/.
  • Do a self-analysis activity.


The letter “n,” or /n/ in its phonetic representation, is a voiced alveolar nasal sound because its production requires, 1) the vibration of the vocal cords, 2) the tip of the tongue to touch the alveolar ridge, and 3) the airflow to pass through the nose.  The Spanish and English “n” is very similar.  However, for Spanish speakers, the tongue may be a bit farther forward than for English speakers.  The sound of the letter “ñ” is represented phonetically thus: /ɲ/.  Like the “n,” it is a voiced nasal sound but, unlike the “n,” it is palatal, which means that the body of the tongue must touch the palate for its production.  In English, this sound is similar to the combinations “ni + vowel ” as in the words “California” and “onion,” and “ny+vowel” as in “Kenya” or “canyon.”  Words that differ only in one sound are called minimal pairs and there are plenty whose only difference is “n” and “ñ.”  The mispronunciation of these words can create a lot of confusion; therefore, it is important to pronounce them correctly.  The classic example is the minimal pair “ano” (anus) and “año” (year).

Watch the animated diagram below for the correct pronunciation of the “n.”

Now, watch the animated diagram below for the correct pronunciation of the “ñ.”  How are they different?

Watch and listen as the speaker says the words “campaña” and “empeño.”

Now let us practice more /n/ and /ɲ/ minimal pairs.  Listen and repeat after the speaker.

/n/ /ɲ/
ano (anus) año (year)
cana (grey hair) caña (sugar cane)
mono (monkey) moño (ribbon)
una (one) uña (nail)
cuna (cradle) cuña (wedge)
tono (tone) Toño (nickname for Antonio)
sonar (to sound) soñar (to dream)
ordenar (to order) ordeñar (to milk)
Sena (Seine, the river) seña (sign)
mana (short for “hermana”) maña (habit)
tino (aim) tiño (first person conjugation of “teñir” [to dye])
cano (grey haired) caño (spout)
ceno (first person conjugation of “cenar” [to dine]) ceño (frown)
acunar (to cradle) acuñar (to mint)

Listen to the phrases below and repeat after the speaker.

• Antaño la cuñada del Meño compraba una cuna que requería una cuña para acunar al muñeco que ahí había.
•  La tacañería de Toño el Tacaño es del tamaño del Cañón del Colorado.
•  La ene apañó una eñe para sonar como año y no como ano.
•  La señora señaló al lampiño hondureño que caminaba con saña cerca de La Cañada.
•  El moño que Nacho que le puso al mono añadía ternura al pequeño animal.
•  Qué maña, qué hazaña y qué halagüeñas eran las hazañas de esa araña.

It is important that you understand what you have learned in this section.  Please take this quiz before continuing with this chapter.


Self Analysis Activity

Listen to your recording and answer the following questions.  Answers will auto-save every 10 seconds.


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