An Introduction To Quechua, One Of The World’s Most Widely Spoken Indigenous Languages

Quechua is a macrolanguage with more than 10 million speakers in seven Latin American countries: Chile, Ecuador, Bolivia, Colombia, Argentina, Brazil and Peru.
view of macchu picchu quechua language

To understand the origins of the Quechua language, we have to go back in time to a territory currently in Peru and Ecuador know as Chinchay.

The inhabitants of this area, the Chancas, were a coastal people heavily involved in trade whose economic interests allowed them to interact with other peoples in the north who also used their language, Quechua, as a means of communication to buy and sell products.

The name Quechua, which some academics think means “temperate valley,” alludes to the ethnic group that lived in the high basin of the Río Pampas in Apurimac, considered to be the original speakers of this language and key to its spread.

The History Of The Quechua Language

The Incas, originally from Titicaca, moved to Cuzco speaking their own language, Pukina. When they arrived in the valley of Cuzco, the migrants from Titicaca underwent some distinct linguistic changes. First they had to learn Aimara, the dominant language of the time. After the war with the Chancas, who brought Quechua to Cuzco, they had to gradually start learning Quechua. The definitive step to Quechua came with the last Incas Huayna Capac and Atahualpa.

When the Incas started their expansion, Quechua was already spoken throughout the territory of Peru, but they were the ones who started to spread it to the southeast.

In 1575, Toledo declared Quechua, Aimara and Pukina as official languages of Peru, and as the main languages for evangelization. When this declaration was made, the Pukina speakers were already speaking Quechua or Aimara more and more, which is why Quechua and Aimara remained while Pukina only exists in a few religious catechisms.

Quechua Grammar

To understand the Quechua language, you have to keep two aspects in mind: the form that words take and how they’re ordered in a sentence. It’s an agglutinating and suffixing language, which means it has a set of suffixes that are added to a root or main word to make it a longer, complete word, like this:

wasi — house
wasiy — my house
wasiyki — your house
wasin — his/her house
wasinchik — our house
wasicha — little house
wasichaykichik — their little house
wasichaykichikkuna — their little houses

As for its syntax, it’s a language that generally orders its sentences starting with the subject, then the object and then the verb, although this can change.

Here’s an example:

Michi huk’uchata hap’in — The cat chases mice (Michi: cat; huk’ucha: mice; hap’i: chases. Each word has its own case and inflection.)

Other examples:

qari — man
qarim kani — I am a man
warmi — woman
Huk warmim kani — I am a woman
qari warma — boy
Huk qari warmam kani — I am a boy

As for adjectives, they always come before the noun:

yuraq hatun wasi — big white house

Quechuan Words

Many of these words are also used in Spanish.

achachay — feeling cold
ayayay — feeling pain
cautchouc — rubber (caucho in Spanish)
chakra — farm, field (chacra in Spanish)
chuqllu — corn
chullu — hat
chupi — soup
kancha — court or field for playing sports (cancha in Spanish)
karka — dirt
karpa — tent (carpa in Spanish)
kinuwa — quinoa
khena — flute
k’umpa — hammer
kuntur — condor
llama — llama
mati — mate (a type of tea)
michi — cat
nanay — lullaby (nana in Spanish)
ñatu — someone with a small nose (ñata in Spanish)
palta — avocado
pampa — plain
papa — potato
pita — thread
puma — puma
punchu — poncho
puna — mountain grass
putu — jug
sapallu — squash (zapallo in Spanish)
táchu — bucket
taita — father
wanu — guano
wáwa — small child
wik’uñavicuña (an animal)
wincha — measuring tape
yapa — something extra (ñapa in Spanish)

Spanish Words That Quechua Adopted

Quechua speakers had to use words from the conquistadors’ language to talk about objects or actions that they couldn’t describe or name in their own language, for example:

aviónaviun (“plane”)
burro burru (“donkey”)
caballocauállo (“horse”)
carrocarru (“car”)
cuchillocuchillu (“knife”)
feriafiria (“festival”)
higoiwus (“fig”)
iglesiaiglesia (“church”)
misamissa (“mass”)
mula mula (“mule”)
plátanolatanus (“plantain”)
plazaplaza (“town square”)
vacawaca (“cow”)

Did You Know?

  • Quechua only has the vowels a, i and u.
  • The Quechua language adds suffixes to words to express friendliness and emotions.
  • Most words have an accent on the next to last syllable, and the tilde is used in more than just a few specific words.
  • Quechua doesn’t have gender markers on words. Instead, they use modifying words.
  • Quechua doesn’t have any diphthongs.
  • The letter h is pronounced like in English: hatun (big)
  • The letter q is pronounced like a double h: qaway (hhaway, to look)

As you can see, Quechua is an ancient language full of history, culture and tradition. Like other languages, such as Nahuatl, it’s still a living language and hasn’t disappeared.

This article originally appeared on the Spanish edition of Babbel Magazine.

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