The ??

A sign of yesterday, today and tomorrow

By Jim Estrada
Published on LatinoLA: January 28, 2011

The ??

Poet, statesman and writer Victor Hugo wrote: "Human society, the world, and the whole of mankind is to be found in the alphabet."

That may be why the ABCs represent the fundamental elements, principles, or basics about any subject -- in English. To better understand U.S. Latinos it is essential that you understand the various influences of their mestizo tongue and culture, which is why the ?? has come to symbolize the Spanish language for so many Latinos.

The Spanish language alphabet contains 30 letters, the same 26 letters in both the English and French alphabets, plus four more: ch, ll, rr and ??. Unlike its kindred letters, the ?? (pronounced en-yeh) did not exist in old Latin (the basis of the "Romance" languages) and is the "only" letter of Spanish origin. In the 12th century, Spanish scribes who copied documents by hand placed a diacritical accent mark -- tilde --over letters as a form of shorthand to indicate that a letter in a word was doubled.

The tilde was used with double letters -- aa became ?ú and nn became ??. Over time, its application to other letters fell out of use, and by the 14th century, the ?? was the only letter associated with the tilde. Its origins can be seen in the word a??o (year), which was derived from the Latin word anno written with a double n.

As the phonetic nature of Spanish solidified, the ?? came to be used for its own individual sound, not just for words that included the double n. Numerous words in Spanish contain the ??: ba??o (bath), ca??on (canyon), campa??a (campaign), ma??ana (tomorrow), se??al (sign) and pi??ata (not yet translated into English, but commonly used).

The inclusion of the ?? into the Spanish language (unlike the other three unique letters of Latin origin in the Spanish alphabet) is also symbolic of the evolution and growth of the mestizo culture in the Americas. There are even those who view mestizos as the resultant of the world's major race classifications: white, black, red and yellow. This blending of races transcends traditional definitions, giving rise to the concept of mestizos as a cosmic or universal race.

In recent years, the ?? has come to be associated with the increasing number of Spanish-speaking people in the United States of America who trace their ancestry to either Spanish conquistadores, indigenous tribes or both, all of whom once inhabited what today we know as the Americas.

Apparently, the ?? has withstood the tests of time and appears to have a future in the lives of some 60 million individuals who in 2010 were contributing to the cultural, economic, political and social evolution of the USA. The ?? can be seen as emblematic of mestizos, Latinos and Hispanics, the fastest growing ethnic population in the western hemisphere, for it continues to connect the past, present and future of the Americas.

(Excerpted from "The ABCs and ?? of America's Cultural Evolution" by Jim Estrada.)

About Jim Estrada:
An expert in marketing and communications. His firm provides strategic counsel on the U.S. Hispanic Consumer and Latino community. The former TV reporter attended San Diego State University, Boston College and Harvard.

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