An Introduction to Runasimi
Quechua (known as Runasimi, “people’s language”, in Quechua) is an Indigenous language spoken by 8-12 million people throughout South America, mainly in the Andean regions of Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador, as well as some speakers in Colombia, Chile, and Argentina. It is the first language spoken by the children I am currently working with in communities in rural Cusco and I am trying my best to learn a few words. Here are a few facts about this very interesting language:
Quechua is it’s own language family: Quechuan. It is divided into two-main sub-groups: Quechua I, also known as Central Quechua, and Quechua II, also known as Southern Quechua or Peripheral Quechua. Within these groups there are over 40 different dialects, many of which are not mutually intelligible. The dialect I’m trying to learn is Cusco-Collao.
The roots of the Quechua language are not well known but it is believed that dialects of Quechua were being spoken all over the Andes thousands of years ago. When the Inca gained control of much of the region in the 15th century, they imposed Quechua throughout their holdings. It was thus the most widely spoken language in the region when the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, and was the main language of communication between the Spanish and Indigenous peoples.
Grammar and Writing
Quechua is an agglutinative language, which means it is based on root words to which a variety of suffixes are added to change meaning. Benny “the Irish polyglot” explains how agglutination works in Quechua here:
Quechua has three main vowel sounds (a, i, u) and includes consonant sounds that we don’t have in English including glottalized consonants, which are pronounced in the throat. There is no definite article (the) in Quechua, and no gender for inanimate objects like in many Latin languages. There was no written form of Quechua before the Spanish arrived, so a writing system based on the Roman alphabet was developed to spread the word of the bible. In the 1970s, a new writing system was adopted by the Peruvian government. It is still based on the Roman alphabet but, among other changes, distinguishes certain sounds by writing them with different letters.
Influence on Other Languages
There are many Quechua words that have made their way into both Spanish and English. These are mostly names of animals and foods from the Andes such as puma, condor, llama, and quinoa. In Peru, and I imagine in other countries where Quechua is spoken, there are also several other words used in Spanish that come from Quechua such as palta (avocado, called aguacate in the rest of the Spanish-speaking world) and chompa (sweater, called many other names elsewhere). Of course, Spanish words have also made their way into the Quechua language, for example tinda (from tienda, store) and awilu (from abuelo, grandpa).
Danger of Extinction
Although Quechua is one of the most widely spoken Indigenous languages in the Americas, the number of speakers is declining and it is considered an endangered language. I’ve written about the importance of intercultural bilingual education in the region, in order to maintain and promote Indigenous languages. However, even with efforts to provide this kind of education, the number of speakers continues to decline. There is a long history of discrimination against Quechua speakers and, although Quechua is one of the official languages, most government business is carried out in Spanish. There is also very little Quechua-language media, and a shortage of written material, including teaching materials for bilingual schools. Even so, many of the communities I am visiting in rural Cusco are almost exclusively Quechua-speaking. Here a few words I’ve learned so far:
Allillanchu – How are you? (the ll is pronounced the same as in Spanish, as y)
Noqa sutimi – My name is
Yusulpayki – Thank you