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Facts about the Quechua Language
By Miryam Yataco, Professor of Sociolinguistics, New York University

Fact 1 – What is the language called?
Autoglotonym (name given to the language by native speakers): Quechua, Quichua, Qheshwa, Keshua, Keswa, Runa-simi, Ingano (Inga), Napenio. The orthographic variants on the word “Quechua” are simply attempts by colonial Spaniards and criollos to represent the varying pronunciations they heard from different linguistic groups. At the time of the Conquest and colonization, all these names were more likely heteroglotonyms, since there is no evidence that the Quechua peoples themselves had specific names for their own languages (Cerron-Palomino 1987:31-37).

Fact 2 – What family language does Quechua belong to?
Quechua belongs to:
Language Family: Quechuan
Group: Quechua
Subgroups: Using historical linguistics as a base, there are two subgroups:
Quechua I, or Huahuash/Central Quechua
Quechua II, or Huampuy/Southern Quechua

Fact 3 – Quechua is not a Creole, nor a Pidgin. It is also not a 'dialect.' Quechua is a fully developed language. It is a complete language in its own right.
Phonetically speaking while Quechua has many consonants, it utilizes only three vowels: a, i and u. Depending on the variations or the dialect of Quechua, these vowels may or may not experience different duration, but this fact does not change the number of available vowel phonemes. In the Southern dialects the consonantal repertoire includes aspirant and glottal variations.

Morphologically speaking, Quechua is an agglutinate language with a highly regular structure in all its grammatical components. That is, morphologically structure is built through the use of suffixes and prefixes.

Syntactically speaking, Quechua is fairly simple; it follows the Subject-Object-Verb word order. Modifiers usually precede the words they modify, similarly to English. You may find many more interesting syntactical features in Quechua Linguistics, by Rodolfo Cerron Palomino (1987).

Fact 4 – Linguistic Classification of the Quechua Varieties or Dialects.

Quechua I
Quechua II
Ancash – Huaylas Norteno Sureno
  Imbabura Pastaza Ayacucho Cochabamba
Peru Ecuador Colombia Puno Bolivia

Fact 5 – Are there written forms?
Yes, there are written forms of Quechua dating back to the Spanish Conquest. While Quechua has traditionally been seen as an oral language, this view is being revised. Textiles and Quipus are studied to identify alternative forms of communication. In any case, because the language has been largely maintained orally for many centuries; there was not much concern about its graphicization.

When Spaniards arrived to America, they had a very established tradition of writing and communicating through written texts. In 1560, Fray Domingo de Santo Tomas wrote the Grammatica o arte de la lengua general de los indios de los reynos del Peru, this was the first work produced on the topic.

In 1606, Diego González Holguín wrote, the Gramática y Arte Nuevo de la lengua general de todo el Perú llamada lengua Quechua o lengua del Inca. In 1608, he produced a dictionary,the Vocabulario de la lengua General de todo el Perú llamada lengua Quechua o del Inca.

Fact 6 – Standardization of Quechua
Due to language contact and also time and geographical isolation, the different varieties of the Quechua language have gone through a process of grammatical and lexical standardization. The best resources to find information about standardization are the following: Wolck's (1987) Pequeno Breviario Quechua, Cerron-Palomino's (1987) Linguistica Quechua. There are many more but these two are essential.

Quechua in its different forms, is spoken in five different countries in Latin America: Bolivia, Argentina, Colombia, Peru & Ecuador. The largest number of bilingual and monolingual Quechua native speakers is concentrated in Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador.

Attempts to standardize the language have been more or less continuous since the Spanish Conquest. Most colonial efforts to standardize Quechua using the Spanish alphabet as a model for most part have failed. One of the main concerns and challenges as with many other Oral Traditional languages of the world is that western alphabets never seem adequate to fulfill the task of accurate sound representation.

Maybe because of the sheer numbers the governments of these 'host' countries have made attempts to approve programs to graphicisize the language/languages mainly pointing to make transitional bilingual education programs possible.

The idea behind these bilingual education programs was never to maintain Quechua, it was always to help/aid Quechua speakers to shift form Quechua into Spanish ONLY as soon as possible. Any efforts to standardize the language or plan educational reforms to include Quechua speakers should be evaluated on a case per case basis.

In modern times, at the Third Congreso Indigenista Interamericano that met in La Paz, Bolivia in 1954, efforts to develop an alphabet that would be able to represent the language at all levels that is: phonologically, morphologically and syntactically were attempted successfully. Some of the results from this workshop included establishing orthographic rules, how to classify Spanish loan words into Quechua orthographic system, and the use of only three vowels (a,i,u) in both Quechua and Aymara official alphabets. You may read more on this in Nancy Hornberger's publications.

The development of a unique standardized alphabet to represent all the distinct dialects of Quechua is not an easy process, nor is it complete.

Fact 7 – Was Quechua the main language of the Incas?
Quechua or Runa Simi was the general language or the lingua franca of the Inca Empire or Tawantinsuyo in Inca times.

The Tawantinsuyo was a highly multilingual empire. For example looking at early seventeenth century Andean Chroniclers such as Guaman Poma de Ayala or Juan Santa Cruz Pachacuti Salcamaygua, it is cited they were both multilingual individuals, speaking at least 7 to 8 different languages at the time of contact. Their acquisition of the Spanish language including literacy in western writing is presumed to have happened at a fast pace. The Spaniards were especially impressed because many of them including commanders were illiterate. Additionally Guaman Poma and Juan Santa Cruz Pachacuti were both able to produce written texts. They became literate subjects and authors and their discourse was tinted with a painful urgency to communicate their experiences.

Guaman Poma expressed his views on political matters and vehemently stated his opposition to the rule of the conquistadors, being openly anticlerical. He denounced the inconsistencies and injustices executed by Spanish civil, ecclesiastical and military authorities in the new World. In summary, both authors created a consistent anticolonial rhetoric. They also created highly interpretative works using a combination of drawings and texts.

Fact 8 – Is there Diglossia in countries where Quechua is spoken?
Yes, Diglossia, is present in all countries where Quechua is spoken. Large degree of linguistic discrimination is practiced, in all countries. Although this should also be evaluated on a case by case basis. Further reading on this topic could include Jose Maria Arguedas's novels.

Fact 9 – Number of speakers
Different sources indicate 13 to 14 million of both bilingual and monolingual Quechua speakers.

Fact 10 – Do nationals in Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia or Colombia who are born in a Spanish-Only monolingual tradition develop an interest in learning Quechua as a second or third language?
Very little, mostly in contemporary times Quechua is seen as a lower prestige language in Andean countries. Quechua is perceived as the language of the poor, the Indians, the uneducated, the illiterate, and the retarded. Quechua is also pejoratively labeled as an incomplete form of expression. The general attitude towards the language in countries such as Peru or Ecuador has been of immense rejection. Since most nationals do not think of Quechua as a 'complete language' they do not think it is worthwhile to learn it.

On the other hand, Quechua speakers are constantly pressured to learn Spanish and shift into Spanish-Only. Subtractive Bilingualism in favor of the Spanish language is the norm in urban settings in all Andean countries. The relationship between ´Quechua and Spanish´ in all Andean countries has always been tense and it remains that way until present.

Fact 11 – How does Quechua maintain its vitality?
Overall the various Quechua languages remain vital, though language maintenance varies from region to region and is affected by political shift. Although in the 1960s some linguists predicted Quechua’s eventual disappearance, there has been a healthy equilibrium between decreases and increases in the number of speakers. One reason is that there are still traditional communities in the Andes that are mostly monolingual. Bilinguals who remain in urban centers in the Andes retain a lot of Quechua while those who migrate to the coastal or Amazon regions do not. Migration patterns do affect the vitality of the language. Music and dance are key factors in promoting Quechua visibility and ensure its continuity across generations. Festivals of traditional music and dance are important vehicles of language maintenance, but are there are also many younger performers who are writing and singing contemporary songs in Quechua mixing popular and traditional genres.

Some of the most important Quechua Musical Genres include:
Qamili, Wit'iti, Llamera, Saratarpuy, Santiago, Toriles, Qhashwatinky, Sarawayllu, Kiyu-Kiyu, Wayllacha, Huaynos, Tinkaches, Hailis, Yaravies, Yarqha Haspiy.

See also:
Mendoza, Zoila S. Shaping Society through Dance: Mestizo Ritual Performance in the Peruvian Andes. 302 p., 32 halftones, 1 map, 1 CD. 6 x 9 2000 Series: (CSE) Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology


Diglossia - When one language is 'perceived' as superior or inferior to others. This is an absolute fantasy, all languages are equally important. There are no primitive languages.

Graphicization: When a language has remained Oral and linguists embark in the difficult task to write it. This is a very difficult and delicate process; it takes time.