I've seen that English dictionaries contain a number of Spanish-imported words that contain the character ñ, such as piñata, piña colada and jalapeño. You find the same sound in other languages, such as French and Italian (the gn group as in the Italian word pugno), but that gn group does not represent the same sound in English (gnome, sign) where it represents just an n sound.

So I was wondering, does the sound the ñ character represents exist in any native English word? Take as "native" a word that was already present in English dictionaries in the 18th century that didn't come from a Latin-derived language. If there are still none, what were the closest approximations to that sound?

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    How loosely are you defining "the 'ñ' sound"? The way English speakers pronounce words like "piñata" is typically analyzed as containing a sequence of two sounds, an "n" sound and a "y" sound. But in Spanish itself, "ñ" is considered to be a consonant sound of its own, not a sequence. Related: Are there any English words starting with an “ny” sound? – herisson May 15 '18 at 6:59
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    @sumelic I would like to find words that contain the sound as close as possible to the Spanish sound, but if there are none, then approximations are OK. – Charlie May 15 '18 at 7:02
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    I'm sorry, but I think this requirement is too contrived. Like restricting "American" to someone from one of the original 13 states. That said, aneurysm is derived from Greek, and appears in Late Middle English. – Spencer May 15 '18 at 10:32
  • Yes, 'native English' doesn't make sense. 'Beaker-speak' or before? / This is also very close to a trivia-question. – Edwin Ashworth May 15 '18 at 12:56
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    Does "not from a Latin-derived language" include "not from Latin"? Because there are quite a few -nio- words that work, and some -niu- and -nia- words that might be pronounced that way in fast speech or certain dialects. Some of these date to the 1300s, but they're pretty much all going to have a Latin root somewhere in there. In addition to those already listed here, there are words like opinion, union, dominion, minion, ingenious, genius, genial, etc. Otherwise, I think you're stuck with nyah (or nyah-nyah etc.) – 1006a May 16 '18 at 18:38

For British English speakers, the start of the word new is similar to Spanish ñ. This example doesn't work for most American English speakers, though.

For both British and American English speakers, the middle of the word sinew is fairly similar to the Spanish ñ sound. It's not a very common word, but it is native to English.

Other examples that don't work for "yod-dropping" American English speakers: knew, newt.

/nj/ occurs in many words from Latin-derived languages, including some words that entered English pretty early on

I can't think of any other English words with /nj/ that are not recent and not from Romance languages or Latin. (Well, I guess there may also be some other words that are compounds with /n.j/, like "barnyard": the OED has a quotation from 1473 that uses the spelling "bernȝarde".)

(I interpret "a word that was already present in English dictionaries in the 18th century that didn't come from a Latin-derived language" as excluding both words that are more recent than the 18th century, regardless of their derivation, and words that are from Latin or a Latin-derived language, regardless of their age. If you intended to include Latin-derived words that are older than that, such as the ones mentioned in some of the other answers, you may want to edit the question to make it clearer.)

Phonotactics of /nj/ in yod-dropping accents

One way of interpreting the American English "yod-dropping" change of /nj/ to /n/ in the onset of stressed syllables is as a loss of or a prohibition of tautosyllabic /nj/: if you adopt a certain theory of syllabification, a word like continue can be analyzed as being exempt from yod-dropping because the /n/ is syllabified with the preceding vowel (/kənˈtɪn.ju/), in contrast to a word like continuity, where the /n/ is syllabified with the following vowel. And more controversially, I think, senior and junior could be syllabified as something like /ˈsin.jər/ and /ˈdʒun.jər/ (although I don't really have a strong intuitive sense that this is the correct syllabification of these words—I can only justify it on theoretical grounds). If you adopt such an analysis, there would be no examples in American English of tautosyllabic /nj/ in native vocabulary, so a heterosyllabic sequence /n.j/ would be the closest that you could get.

Despite this, in my experience, American English speakers typically don't have much (if any) trouble producing word-initial (and thus, by necessity, tautosyllabic) /nj/ in foreign words, although some speakers may use a syllabic /ni/ pronunciation instead (possibly with some influence from English spelling conventions where "y" can represent /j/ or /i/, or due to a lesser willingness to use pronunciations that are not fully assimilated to American English phonology/phonotactics). E.g. the American Heritage Dictionary gives the pronunciation of loanword nyala (a type of African antelope) as disyllabic "nyä´lə", while Merriam Webster gives the trisyllabic pronunciation "\ nē-ˈä-lə \".

  • Maybe poignant? – Xanne May 15 '18 at 8:24
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    @Xanne: well, "poignant" comes from French, so I think it would be excluded by the criteria in the original post – herisson May 15 '18 at 8:43
  • Hmmm...I perceive in sinew two separate sounds. Sin-you. Not Siñew. I suppose whether it's a "close approximation" is up to the ear of the hearer. – Arm the good guys in America May 16 '18 at 17:29
  • @user: As far as I know, in most American English accents there isn't any word where it is obvious that "n" and "y" must be thought of as being in the same syllable. I edited the answer to add a section about this. Can you think of any counterexamples? – herisson May 16 '18 at 18:14
  • I will think on. I doubt it. – Arm the good guys in America May 16 '18 at 18:18

And junior from Latin. So is that out? In English since 1548 or earlier. So if the cut-off is 18th Century...

Or senior also from Latin. Found in the Wicliffe Bible, 1382.

Rev. 7:11 And alle aungels stoden in cumpas of the trone and of [the] senyouris or eldre

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    Onion, for that matter - swiped from Old French into Middle English. – user888379 May 16 '18 at 17:19
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    "Companion", of course, is from French. – Hot Licks May 16 '18 at 19:01
  • Junior is not pronounced /ɲ/ – Quidam Dec 27 '19 at 9:06

We can make a good approximation of a Spanish ñ in English by using /n/ followed by /j/ so that we have the sequence [nj]. This is what we use in words like bunion or, in British English, renew, and in loanwords such as piñata, piña colada and jalapeño. However, this is not quite the same sound as we get in Spanish, where ñ is actually a voiced palatal nasal, [ɲ]. With this sound the oral closure for the nasal is made on the palate, not the alveolar ridge or front teeth.

Having said all of that, most Spanish speakers recognise that [ɲ] is intended if a sequence of [n] and [j] is used and most native English speakers will find the two different pronuncations indistinguishable.

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    According to Merriam-Webster, canyon is a Spanish loanword as well: "American Spanish cañón, probably alteration of obsolete Spanish callón, augmentative of calle street, from Latin callis footpath." – Mike Harris May 16 '18 at 17:16
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    @Mike Harris. Cheers. Have edited. – Araucaria - Not here any more. May 16 '18 at 17:22

There are no words in English with the /nj/ pair that were already in Old English. That is, all such words have been borrowings since 1066; the pair is either a new cluster or an introduction.

The /nj/ pair appears in many modern English words: onion, junior, union

This negative result was made by searching the CMU pronunciation dictionary (Standard American English) for all pairs "n y", and then checking the etymology of the resulting words. The great majority are from Old French (onion), neologisms like place names (Virginia), Late Latin creations (insinuate), or the much more recent Spanish (canyon, jalapeño).

The pair is not difficult to pronounce in most any language that has /j/ (doesn't everybody have /n/?). So I don't think there are any phonological processes that make it intentionally rare (like /tl/ or /pkt/). I think German and other Germanic language have a similar 'native' lack, but with some borrowings from French with it.

  • No and yes. New had /nj/ in OE and still does in most Englishes. – Araucaria - Not here any more. May 16 '18 at 19:04
  • @Araucaria Noice... which words? – Mitch May 16 '18 at 19:07
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    @Araucaria: my impression was that "new" is thought to have had some sort of falling diphthong like [iu̯], [eo̯] or [eu̯] in Old English (I'm not sure exactly which, since the spelling of Old English diphthongs doesn't seem to have been entirely straightforward and the vowel used in this word may have varied between dialects) or a monophthong + glide sequence, not an [n] + glide + vowel sequence. – herisson May 16 '18 at 19:08
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    @Araucaria: words like union didn't start with /j/ until around 1700; they started with a vowel. You can see this because people said an union back then, although they said a yellow. See Ngrams. Presumably new followed its /n/ with the same vowel. – Peter Shor May 16 '18 at 19:21
  • @mitch , sumelic Sorry, to be more technically accurate in terms of how much info I have, there are words like sinew, new etc that existed in OE, that aren't borrowings since 1066! But falling dipthong or not, you're going to get a phonetic approximation to the Spanish phoneme, no? (But my understanding of the OE might be all wrong there) – Araucaria - Not here any more. May 16 '18 at 19:27

The word 'onion' contains the enye sound.

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    "Onion" is Norman French, not strictly native, but has been in English a while, long enough to fit the question – J. Taylor May 15 '18 at 9:34
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    Same with companion. – Phil Sweet May 15 '18 at 9:46
  • Also "mania" and probably many other words with an "nia" or "nio" sound in the spelling? – English Student May 17 '18 at 4:06
  • @English Student: mania seems to have the ñ sound in British English, but not in American English. – Peter Shor May 17 '18 at 10:30
  • Thanks for explaining that there is a difference @Peter Shor. So in American English I suppose it is pronounced as ma-ni-ya with a clear separation of the "n" and "y" sounds? – English Student May 17 '18 at 14:29

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