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Definition: Quechua from Philip's Encyclopedia

Most widely spoken of all Native South American languages, with c.5 million speakers in Peru, 1.5 million in Bolivia and 500,000 in Ecuador. Originally the language of the great Inca Empire, it is related to Aymará - the pair forming the Quechumaran family.

Summary Article: Quechua Language
from Conflict in the Early Americas: An Encyclopedia of the Spanish Empire's Aztec, Incan, and Mayan Conquests

Quechua, Runa Simi, or runasimi, is a primarily oral indigenous language family spoken principally in the central Andes of South America, including the countries of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. Alongside Spanish, it is one of the official languages of Bolivia and Peru. The Incas called their language Runa Simi or runasimi that was later renamed Quechua by colonial Spanish settlers in the 1500s. This was an adaption from the indigenous word qicwa, meaning “temperate valley” and referring to areas in the Andes used for maize cultivation. There are an estimated 10 million speakers of the Quechua language, making it the mostly widely spoken indigenous language in the Americas.

The oldest forms of Quechua were used in Cajamarquilla, Lima. The oldest written records of the language, referred to as quichua, are written by missionary Domingo de Santo Tomás (1499–1570) in Peru in 1538 after he had previously learned the language in Lima. He later compiled the first Quechua grammar guide, Grammatica o arte de la lengua general de los reynos de Perú, and the first book printed in the language. Santo Tomás's works perpetuated the mythical and incorrect origin of the language with the Quechua-speaking people from modern Andahuaylas. Rather, from Lima, the use of the language grew and it was actively employed as a means to unify the Inca Empire. This means that Quechua existed prior to the Incas. Though Quechua consisted of a diverse group of dialects, many of which still exist, its use grew and spread, shaping other indigenous languages such as Mapudungun. Following the Spanish conquest, Quechua was used as the main means of communication between the incoming Spaniards and the Indigenous population, including clergy of the Roman Catholic Church. This adoption as the lingua franca led to the continued expansion and use of the language. Some other written forms of the language include plays, poems quoted in predominantly Spanish texts, and the Huarchiri Manuscript written in 1598, describing the mythology and religion of the valley of Huarchiri. Quechua was banned from public use in Peru in the late 1700s in response to the Túpac Amaru II rebellion in 1780.

Because of Quechua's many dialects, it is considered a language family as opposed to a single language. Classification of all the different kinds of Quechua is complicated, particularly as it lacks written materials and remains a primarily oral tradition. However, Quechua 1, or Quechua B, or Central Quechua of Waywash is spoken primarily in central Peru and along its coast, from Ancach to Huancayo. Varieties include Conchucos, Huaylas, and Huayalla Wanca. Quechua II, or Quechua A, or Peripheral Quechua or Wanp'una, meaning “traveler,” can divided into more subsections where Yungay Quechua or Quechua II A is spoken in the mountains of Peru featuring Cajamarca as its most widely used dialect. This second division also featured Northern Quechua, also known as Runashimi, or Quechua II B spoken in Columbia (referred to as Inga Kichwa), Ecuador (referred to there as Kichwa), and northern Peru. The most used dialects of this division are Chimborazo Highland Quichua and Imbabura Quichua. The final division in this particular linguistic system is Southern Quechua, or Quechua II C, spoken in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, and the south of Peru. The dialectics most used from this final division are Ayacucho, Cuzco, Puna, and South Bolivian. This final division encompasses the largest number of speakers and most of the limited written sources of the language that do exist. Though linguists sometimes disagree on where various dialects should fall in any given classification system, most do adhere to a basic division of central and peripheral largely based on geographical branches of the language. Since the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire in the mid-1500s the limited writing of Quechua has been done using the Roman alphabet. Unlike many colonial romance languages, like Spanish, Quechua's adjectives are not gendered and used to describe people like a possession as opposed to an identity.

Quechua words appear in languages like Aymara and Spanish because of extensive long-term contact. These languages bear many similarities, including only having three vowel sounds of a, i, and u. Some Spanish has also been added to the Quechua vocabulary such as “bwenu” from “bueno” and “burru” from “burro.” Contemporary Quechua features about 30 percent Spanish words. Further, some Quechua words have worked their way into English via Spanish including, but not limited to, coca, jerky, llama, and quinoa.

See also: Lima; Santo Tomás, Domingo de.

  • Adelaar, William F.H. The Languages of the Andes (Cambridge Language Surveys). Cambridge University Press Cambridge, 2007.
  • Nuckolls, Janis B. Lessons from a Quechua Strongwoman: Ideophony, Dialogue and Perspective. The University of Arizona Press Tucson, 2010.
  • Mary Shearman
    Copyright 2013 by Rebecca M. Seaman

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