One would assume that a language with an estimated speaking population of nearly eight and a half million people would be able to provide a substantial amount of historical linguistic data. This has not been the case with the Quechua language. Quechua is a language that has been spoken in the Andes region of South America since before the days of the Inca Empire. Speakers of this ancient Andean language can be found in Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, as well as Argentina.
As with many of the Central and South American languages, it’s origin is relatively unknown. Only with the arrival of the conquistadores in the sixteenth century to the Andean coasts of South America do written documents start to appear which describe the Quechua phenomena. In fact, the first record that is available which describes Quechua is a grammatical and vocabulary book written by a Sevillan, Fray Domingo de Santo Tomás (Cerrón-Palomino 37). Written in 1560, this book, along with many observations by El Inca Garcilaso de la Vega — such as Comentarios reales de los Incas and Historia General del Perú — paved the way for many future linguists and interested people to study Quechua (Varona-Lacey 33).
Due to the fact that the major source for historical linguistics data would have to rely on the strong oral tradition of the Incan empire, those interested in tracing the origins of Quechua would have and continue to have long road in front of them in determining it’s origin.
There are varying ideas as to the number of Quechuan dialects spoken throughout the Andean region. Appendix A (a copy of data provided by Cerrón-Palomino) which I have included in the back of this paper shows roughly twenty-three different dialects. This figure was given in 1987 and included Quechua varieties from five different countries. However, as seen in appendix B, another scholar, ten years later, pointed out nineteen different dialects within Peru alone (Pozzi-Escot 217-305). As can be seen, much remains to be done in order to determine exactly how many dialects there are and in what regions they were and are spoken.
There are two main fields of thought
regarding the origin of Quechua and the place where it’s dissemination
started. One theory supports the idea that Quechua originated in Cuzco,
Peru and from there was spread to the rest of the Inca empire. The other
theory proposes that Quechua’s origin was not Cuzco but the northern coasts
of Peru and from there it spread to the highlands, even before the arrival
of the Inca people.
The highlands origin hypothesis. This hypothesis is the one that has received the most attention to date dealing with the origin of the Quechua language. It is mainly based on oral tradition and history. Cuzco, Peru has been deemed the center of the Incan empire and thus it is assumed that the origin of their language also must have been centered around the city. The Inca were a people who conquered a vast majority of people and in doing so, they wanted to make their empire more linguistically homogenous. They did this by forcing all conquered peoples to learn Quechua.
The Inca had a system of government where an Inca leader would be appointed to rule over a group of newly conquered people. The highland hypothesis states that these leaders were also given the responsibility to maintain the Inca language — Quechua — and make sure that it became the native tongue of the people. The proponents of this hypothesis claim that the arrival of the conquistadores and their Spanish corrupted the already existing Quechua language. The farther away from the empire’s linguistic center — this being Cuzco — the greater influence that Spanish had on the degradation of Quechua.
The coastal origin hypothesis. The coastal origin hypothesis can be summed up by the words of Manuel González de la Rosa: “Quechua was not the general language of the Inca and their empire; Quechua arrived to Cuzco as an end. It did not start from Cuzco and arrive to the coast and everywhere else” (Cerrón-Palomino 328). Proponents of this particular hypothesis believe that because the Inca empirical reign was less than 300 years, there was not enough time to account for the many different dialects that existed along with the supposed linguistic domination of Quechua dispersing from Cuzco. Quechua originated in the coast and from there it spread to the southern Andean regions a few centuries before the Inca even formed their large empire. One piece of evidence for this hypothesis is the fact that scholars attribute the Huáihuash dialect to be the oldest variety of Quechua still spoken today. They claim that this language contains roots that can be attributed to the Proto-Quechua language. The divergence between this dialect and the other major Quechua dialects occurred in the west Andean region, thus attributing the origin of the Quechua language to the coasts of Peru. From the coast, then, Quechua spread throughout the highlands as well as to the other regions.
It is surprising that Quechua has lasted as long as it has when languages right beside it have vanished without so much as a trace. However, since a large number of Quechua speakers inhabited the land where the conquistadores arrived, many of the Spaniards were almost forced to learn Quechua. Some of these people even came to consider Quechua their native tongue (Itier 98).
This was definitely not the case with the majority of the Spaniards that arrived to the New World. When the conquistadores arrived to the Andean regions, they immediately began to push the Spanish language onto the Indigenous peoples and this no doubt caused the disappearance of many languages. As Spanish speakers became more numerous in the region, Quechua began to be viewed as an inferior language that served no purpose except to determine who to discriminate against. This view has only recently begun to change in the Andean areas as many linguists in all areas are beginning to look at the Quechua language for what it is and what it represents: a once dominant language that shaped the very lives of one of the greatest empires that ever ruled on the South American continent.
One of the biggest reasons why Quechua continues to be a spoken language today is because, “Quechua speakers continue to speak Quechua because it is a symbol of their local ethnicity” (Weber 14). Each version of Quechua has differences that unite it with certain history and by forcing these people to view Spanish as a more important language will no doubt cause Quechua’s death. There are many people who fail to understand the power of local ethnicity within speakers of the Quechua language.
There are also those who would like to see all dialects of Quechua to merge into one great conglomeration of a “national Quechua.” However, what they do not understand is that, “[this] would contribute on one side to the weakening of regional Quechua and on the other, a greater loyalty to Spanish for national functions” (16). Most Quechua speakers do not deal with national issues on a daily basis, nor do they travel extensively to such a point where a national language would be necessary. Haugen states, “The majority [of Quechua speakers] have a comfortable and restricted life, where the most important things occur within the home, between friends, and in the workplace. Here, the imposition of a new language, only because it has some national or international benefit, would stir up their life. It would leave the people feeling without roots, solitary, aggressive, and antisocial” (17). Weber’s solution is one that many people fail to realize when it comes to language diversity and is one that makes the most sense. He says, “In this critical moment of the history of Quechua, we must give priority to the reinforcement of Quechua and it’s many varieties. We must recognize the worth of the varieties — even when they are not spoken following our criteria. We must work to increase the range of functions that Quechua can be used for so that we can embrace among others reading and writing, education, and communication in economic and legal processes” (20).
Quechua is a language that has remained mostly unknown every since its discovery in the sixteenth century. Lack of written records have made it an incredible task to determine its origin as well as its linguistic history. A couple of strong theories abound but it will take much more research in order to come to a major consensus. We are fortunate that Quechua oral tradition has withstood the test of time and has provided an incredible amount of helpful information so that an origin can be reasonably hypothesized and debated over using available resources along with the comparative method. If there was ever a language that was deeply embedded into the society of the people that spoke it, Quechua was that language. It’s rich heritage has given a seemingly sure foundation to the ever-present change that seems to affect the Andes region. It is hoped by this author that future discoveries into what this language really was and meant for those who spoke it will indeed be a light and a beacon for their ancestors.
Proposed Quechuan language tree
Proposed Quechua Language Tree
Cerrón-Palomino, Rodolfo. Lingüística Quechua. Cuzco, Perú: Centro de Estudios Rurales Andinos “Bartolomé de Las Casas,” 1987.
Gladys M. Varona-Lacey. Introducción a la Literatura Hispanoamericana: De la Conquista al Siglo XX. Chicago: National Textbook Company, 1977.
Itier, César. “Quechua y Cultura en el Cuzco del Siglo XVIII: De la ‘lengua general’ al ‘idioma del imperio de los Incas.’” Del Siglo de Oro al Siglo de las Luces. Ed.
César Itier. Cuzco, Perú: Centro de Estudios Rurales Andinos “Bartolomé de Las Casas,” 1995. 89-106.
Pozzi-Escot, Inés. El Multilingüísmo en el Perú. Cuzco, Perú: Centro de Estudios Rurales Andinos “Bartolomé de Las Casas,” 1998.
Soriano, Waldemar E. “Los Fundamentos Lingüísticos de la Etnohistoria Andina y Comentarios en Torno al Anónimo de Charcas de 1604.” Aula Quechua. Ed. Cerrón-Palomino, Rodolfo. Lima, Perú: Ediciones SIGNO, 1982. 163-203.
Weber, David J. Estudios Quechua: Planificación, Historia y Gramática. Pucallpa, Perú: Instituto Lingüístico de Verano, 1987.