about Quechua

topic posted Mon, March 19, 2007 - 8:55 AM by  gayle
Welcome to all the new members, and I guess it is time to post something, like a general orientation to Quechua. I have a degree in Linguistics with a specialization in Native American languages (my original life-dream had been to be a field linguist and help save endangered indigenous languages) so I may use some linguistics terminology at times, but I will always try to explain it.

First - we talk about "Quechua language," but it would be more accurate to call it a family of languages. Quechua has innumerable regional dialects, many of which are mutually unintelligible. There is one major dialect that stretches from Cuzco south into Bolivia, but headed northward from Cuzco, the language becomes very different, and in Ecuador, where it is called Quichua, it is seriously different. Historically, this is because, although Quechua is best known as the official language of the Inca Empire, and the lingua franca used to communicate among different groups, the Incas were only taking advantage of an existing lingua franca that had already been used in many areas for centuries. The Incas introduced Quechua, their own Cuzco dialect, to Bolivia, and so Bolivian Quechua is relatively recent and hasn't had so much time to change (for convenience, I will refer to this variety as "Cuzco Quechua") but the Quechua of Ecuador shows at least 800 to 1000 years divergence from Cuzco Quechua (but the Incas brought their own Cuzco Quechua when they conquered Ecuador, complicating the picture with the overlay of Cuzco Quechua, with the areas with greatest Inca influence having the most similarity to Cuzco Quechua and the more remote regions being very different). Quechua has also historically been used as a lingua franca in the Amazon, specifically the Napo River region, which was a major trade toute. The Napo River starts in the Amazon region of what is now Ecuador and flows through what is now Peru to meet the Amazon River near Iquitos. The Incas never conquered this region, so this variety of Quechua is seriously different from Cuzco Quechua. The Quechua associated with Ayahuasca practice in the Peruvian Amazon is clearly connected to the Napo River Quechua and not to the Cuzco Quechua of the Incas, which makes geographical sense.

Under the Incas, Quechua was used as a lingua franca, or second language of communication, throughout the empire (Tawantinsuyu). When the Spanish missionaries came, they realized it would be much easier for them to take advantage of an existing lingua franca than to try to force all these millions of people to switch to Spanish, so the missionaries learned Quechua, evangelized in it, and forced the extinction of the local languages. Thus, it is due to the Spanish conquest that so many people today speak Quechua as their first language . After the rebellion of Tupac Amaru in 1781, the Spanish crown changed its policy and outlawed Quechua, but by then it was too late.

Although sometimes we may hear about "Quechua people," Quechua is not an ethnicity. The Quechua-speaking peoples are many different ethnicities speaking dialects of a common language. They do all refer to themselves as "Runa," though, a word which literally means "person," but in practice, in the highland Andes, connotes humble common people, the Indians.

The word "Quechua" actually is an Inca term for an ecological zone. The Incas had terms for different altitude zones with their different climates ("puna," their word for the high cold dry altiplano, has been adopted into local Spanish). The word "qheshwa" was the Inca term fot the zone of temperate climate, neither tropical nor cold. When the Spaniards asked "What are you people called?" someone told them they were the temperate-zone folks, and the name stuck. In Quechua, the name of the language is "Runa Simi" in Peru and "Runa Shimi" in Ecuador -- the "mouth of the people" or "language of the common humble Indians."

Quechua is a very learnable language, which accounts for its success as a lingua franca. It is 100% regular (except for some shortened forms found in different local dialects). In fact, I don't know of any other natural language in the world with no irregularities. This means that once you learn a rule, you can apply it with no exceptions. Quechua also has no useless grammatical rules (like gender, for example). Everything in Quechua grammar contributes directly to meaning.
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  • Unsu...
    thank you! please write a book. or, maybe you can recommend one so that i might learn more (Ecuador Tena region)
  • so Quechua is a language family, not a people, much like Tewa or Towa? Good to know.
    • Yes, Quechua is not an ethnic group. There are many different ethnic groups that speak Quechua, each with its own distinct culture and identity, throughout the Andean region (Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and parts of Andean Colombia and Argentina) and also parts of the Amazon, especially the Amazonian region of Ecuador and some of the northern Peruvian Amazon.

      Quechua has a long history as a lingua franca in the Andes and parts of the Amazon (especially the Napo River region) and it was adopted by the Incas as the official lingua franca of the Inca empire, so it was widely spoken as a second language before the arrival of the Spaniards, but each ethnic group also had its own language as well. The Spanish missionaries took advantage of the fact that there was this existing lingua franca and learned Quechua to evangelize in, because that was much easier than trying to force these milions of people to switch to Spanish, and the missionaries forced the extinction of the local languages, which resulted in the many diverse ethnic groups of the Andes speaking Quechua as their first language.

      But because it has been used for so long, by widely spread out peoples who have had little interaction with each other, and because in each area it is influenced by the local languages people used to speak, the dialects of Quechua vary widely and are often mutually unintelligible, which means that they could be considered distinct languages (mutual unintelligibility being the way that linguistics roughly defines the difference between a dialect and a distinct language). However, it is often hard to draw boundaries among dialects that shade into each other, to define where one Quechua language ends and another begins.

      The Quechua language is usually referred to in Quechua as Runa Simi, or "people's language" ("Runa" has a connotation of Indian or common humble people), although in some areas, since the Conquest, it has been called Yanga Simi, or "useless language."

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