Quechua Language...
Major native tongue of South America

Ayacucho Artist. Peru
Ayacucho Artist. Peru - © Daniel Moore

Official language in Bolivia and Peru, Quechua language is spoken by an estimated number of ten million people today.

Language of the central Andes, way before Inca times, it's also found in Ecuador, South of Colombia, Northern Chile and Northern Argentina.

It became official language of the Tawantinsuyu or Inca Empire for as long as it lasted, almost one century.

In 1438, the Inca Pachacuti, mandated that Quechua (Quichua, Runa Simi) become the language of the empire and required any official or administrator to know the language

Beyond the two dominating languages, Spanish and Portuguese - brought by European conquistadores to the New World - it is the biggest indigenous language of South America by number of speakers.

By the time of the Spanish conquest in XVI century, Quechua was the form of communication (evangelization) between missionaries and aboriginals. In fact, early written records are the ones of Fray Domingo de Santo Tomas, who published his Grammatica o arte de la lengua general de los indios de los reynos del Perú, in 1560. Another resource is Comentarios reales de los Incas and Historia General del Perú by Garcilaso de la Vega.

In the late XVIII century, Quechua language was banned from public use in Peru after Tupac Amaru II rebellion. It came back and we can (fortunately) still experience it today, even though more constrained to rural areas, where traditions are kept alive. No religion, or government, could ever kill the authentic culture of the Andes.

Virgin Mary has been assimilated with Pachamama (Earth Goddess) and other pagan rites. Coca leaves chewing (Akullaku) still remain part of the Andean cultures as always, despite efforts of some foreign governments thinking that by eradicating coca cultivation abroad would help them to sort their own drug-related problems at home.

The cross and the sword it's been the yardstick of Latin America "civilization" for the last five centuries or so. If you care to learn more about this, Bartolomé de las Casas and his "A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies" - published in 1552 - provides a good account of events.

Quinua Art Work. Ayacucho, Peru.
Quinua Art Work. Ayacucho - © Daniel Moore

The origin of Quechua language is relatively unknown, linguists need to rely in oral tradition mainly.

The Incas didn't have a written language, however, they've managed to keep an empire under control by using a system of tying strings in knots known as quipu.

Runners (chasquis) would carry messages to the four corners of the kingdom for the ruling class to know about population, crops, taxes, regional reports, etc.

By doing so they were able to know about the economic conditions of all regions and to act upon catastrophes such as droughts.

That was the key for their dominance.

Nothing was taken for granted. Expert engineers, they built an extensive road network known as El camino del Inca, composed by two main arteries...
- El Camino Real (5,200km) from Ecuador to Argentina, high up in the Andes mountains, reaching altitudes over 5,000 meters a.s.l.
- El Camino de la Costa (4,000km) running parallel to the Pacific ocean.

Parts of this road is still in use at present time.

As for the number of Quechua dialects spoken in the Andes, some linguists place it in the region of forty six, divided in two groups, Group I with 17 languages and Group II with 29, that can be further divided in subgroups A, B and C, with 4, 14, and 11 languages respectively.

Two main fields of thought coexist regarding the origin of Quechua language, the highland theory supports the idea that Quechua originated in Cuzco and then was spread to the rest of the Inca empire.

The coastal origin hypothesis claims that Quechua originated in the coast and from there it spread to the highlands and other regions of the southern Andes, a few centuries earlier than the arrival of the Incas.

Pronunciation of Quechua (Cuzco/Bolivian dialect)

Pronunciation of Quechua
Many thanks to Omniglot.com.

Download here the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Quechua language (PDF format).

Article One:
Tukuy kay pachaman paqarimujkuna libres nasekuntu tukuypunitaj kikin obligacionesniycjllataj, jinakamalla honorniyojtaj atiyniyojtaj, chantaqa razonwantaj concienciawantaj dotasqa kasqankurayku, kawsaqe masipura jina, tukuy uj munakuyllapi kawsakunanku tian.

English translation:
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

What follows is a list of basic words in Quechua language...

  • Hello: Rimaykullaykil
  • Goodbye: Tupananchis-kama
  • Yes: Arí
  • No: Mana
  • Please: Arichu
  • Thank you: Sulpayki
  • You're welcome: Imamanta
  • Excuse me: Dispinsayuway
  • Sorry: Pampachayuway
  • Hi: Napaykullayki

If you'd like to immerse in Quechua studies, the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies (University of Michigan) gives you the option. You could also opt for the summer programe taking place in Cuzco through Centro Tinku.

You could also learn some Quechua online...


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