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Quechua Language (Inca)

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Overview: The Quechua group of languages is the most widely spoken of all the indigenous American languages, estimated to be the mother tongue of anywhere from 8 to 10 million people. These estimates, based primarily on South American census data, are sometimes considered to be artificially low. Statistics on the number of speakers are scarce and unreliable, as the mountainous regions of the Andes where these languages are spoken are frequently remote and/or impoverished. As many as 44 Quechua dialects have been reported, but this number could easily be higher.

There are many misconceptions about this family of languages. The name “Quechua” comes from a misnomer, when the Spanish assumed that the native word for their physical surroundings was actually referring to the language itself. The Quechuan term for their own language is, in fact, “Runasimi.” Although “Quechua” is often referred to as being a single language, it is technically a language family that encompasses three major regions: Ecuador Quechua (in Ecuador and Peru), Central Quechua (in northern Peru), and Southern Quechua (in Peru, Bolivia, and northwestern Argentina). Mutual intelligibility is generally high within these major regions, but Quechua speakers from further afield frequently have difficulty communicating with one another.

Roots of the language: Indigenous American languages have not been studied to the same extent as those of the Old World, but attempts have been made to piece together the ancient history of the more major ones. The dialects of Quechua were popular among the people of the Andes thousands of years ago, and interacted heavily with another native tongue, Aymara (to such a degree that some scholars have argued that they belong to the same language family, although most today acknowledge that they came from different roots originally). The ancient Incan Empire adopted Quechua and spread it throughout their significant holdings, and so it was the dominant language that the Spanish encountered when they began exploring at the turn of the sixteenth century.

The Quechua languages have intermixed with Spanish a great deal over the years, borrowing and lending many words (some of which, like llama and condor, have even made their way into English). The indigenous languages have historically been looked down on, and though there are revival movements today, the damage cannot be quickly reversed. There are concerns that the Quechua languages are dying out, as even native people turn to communicating in Spanish in order to get ahead in mainstream life. Quechua is one of the official languages of Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru, but in some cases this is seen as mostly symbolic.

Language characteristics: Most Quechua dialects, like many other Native American languages, have an unusually small number of vowels and correspondingly large number of consonants. Several consonant sounds may have been borrowed from Spanish, as even speakers who communicate solely in Quechua use a relatively high proportion of adopted Spanish words. The Quechua languages are very agglutinative, in that they frequently add meaning through the use of suffixes. There is even a grammatical structure called evidentiality, in which suffixes are added to words in order to express how certain the speaker is of the statement that he or she is making.

Written form: Quechua does not appear to have had a written form before colonial times, although the ancient Incas frequently kept track of numerals through the use of a complicated series of knots. Once the Latin alphabet was introduced by the Spanish, it was occasionally used to write in Quechua. Written Quechua was intended mostly for evangelistic purposes, although the indigenous people also took to writing poetry and plays. In modern times, writing has been a key part of attempts to reinforce the native languages in schools, and has been used to record much of the indigenous people’s oral history. South American linguists are currently debating which spelling conventions will be most true to the Quechua languages, while still making them convenient to teach to children.

Last Updated : April 21, 2015

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