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Number of Speakers: About 8,354,000

Key Dialects: See below

Geographical Center: Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia

Estimates of the numbers of speakers vary from 5 to 12 million. Cerrón-Palomino (1987:76) gives a total of 8,354,125 speakers distributed to seven countries as follows: Peru (4,402,023); Ecuador (2,233,000); Bolivia (1,594,000); Argentina (120,000). It is also spoken in Colombia, Brazil and Chile with less than 5,000 speakers in the three countries combined.

Quechua is a family of 46 languages and dialects spoken in a broad area of South America that extends to seven countries. It is divided into two main groups: group I, with 17 languages, and group II, with 29 languages. The second group is further divided into subgroups A, B, and C, with 4, 14, and 11 languages respectively.

There is a major split between the two groups of dialects, group I and group II. The group II dialects are separated by the group I dialects located in the middle of the area where they are spoken. The four dialects of subgroup A of group II (Pacaroras, Cajamarca, Lambayeque, and Yauyos) are spoken in North Peru. They are surrounded by the 14 languages of subgroup B (Chachapoyas, San Martin, and Southern Pastaza in Peru, Inga and Jungle Inga in Colombia, and Highland Imbabura, Northern Pastaza, Lowland Napo, Highland Canar, Highland Tungurahua, Highland Loja, Highland Calderon, Highland Chimborazo, and Lowland Tena in Ecuador). The 11 dialects of subgroup C (Arequipa-La Union, Classical, Apurimac, Puno, Cuzco, and Ayacucho in South Peru, Chilean, in Chile, South and North Bolivian in Bolivia, and Northwest Jujuy, and Santiago Del Estero in Argentina) are spoken in two extended areas separated in the middle by an area in which the local population speaks the distinguished Aymara language.

The Incas never developed an alphabet. The only records the language possessed were kept by means of an arrangement of cords of various colors, which were knotted in different ways. All literature prior to the Spanish conquest was handed down by oral tradition. The Spanish introduced the Roman alphabet but to this day the spelling has not been officially standardized. For example, the Peruvian Ministry of Education in 1975 adopted an official alphabet with 5 vowels, but then revised this in 1985 and switched to the 3-vowel system with the letters e and o reserved for Spanish loan words. The 3-vowel alphabet is the official one in Peru and government educational materials in Quechua are produced in it. It is also the officially accepted alphabet for education in Ecuador and Bolivia.

Quechua is an agglutinating language. Words are built up from a basic root followed by a number of suffixes each of which carries its own meaning and no suffix indicates more than one grammatical properties. As is typical for an agglutinating language, Quechua has a detailed derivational system. Many of the suffixes used in the language are in the boundaries between inflectional and derivational morphology.

The distinction between the different grammatical categories is quite blurred in Quechua. Many verb roots are identical to noun roots and elements that belong to the category of adjectives in other languages, in Quechua appear without any modified nominals in their environment and accompanied by normal case suffixes.

Number is represented in the nominal and verbal morphology, although in many cases it is only optional, or must be omitted (i.e. when the context is clearly plural). Quechua does not mark gender and only the use of specific auxiliary words can help distinguish male from female. There is extensive and obligatory marking for both topics and focused elements in the language, while definiteness is not marked.

Verbs are classified as transitive, intransitive and equational or existential. The latter are also used to indicate surprise. Quechua verbs are inflected for person. Tenses are expressed by suffixes. For example Quechua has two past tenses indicated with two different suffixes. The first is for past events directly experienced and the second for those not directly experienced. There are also suffixes forming the causative, reflexive, and benefactive forms, as well as suffixes indicating movement, repetition, and so on. Object pronouns are incorporated into the verb.

The language has a Subject-Object-Verb word order. The verb generally comes last in a sentence. However, as objects are explicitly marked, word order is fairly free.

The vocabulary of the language has suffered heavy influence from Spanish acquiring numerous loan-words. Quechua also has many onomatopoeic words, especially making use of its ejective and aspirated stops, particularly the uvulars. It also makes considerable use of reduplication.

Quechua is considered a low-prestige language and is not usually used in the media, television, and radio (with a few exceptions). Furthermore, there is extremely little written material published in Quechua. The only cultural domain where the language is used extensively is in traditional Andean music.

In Peru education is exclusively in Spanish although many primary teachers use a combination of Spanish and Quechua with Quechua monolingual pupils. As education and integration spreads, Quechua monolingualism is rapidly declining. In Cuzco, for instance, the majority of speakers over 35 years old are usually fluent in Quechua but use it minimally. A large percentage of those less than 35 years old understand it but are reluctant to speak it.

Quechua native speakers in the big cities consider speaking the language as an admission of undesirably low social background. On the other hand in small villages Quechua remains the everyday language while in formal contexts like government, administration, and so on Spanish is used.

The concentration of people in urban centers is one of the main reasons for the decline of the part of the population that use the language in their everyday communication. In Bolivia and Ecuador the status of the language is considerably improved, owing to the success of indigenous movements.

Bilingual education is present in the educational systems of both these countries at least in the lower levels. Moves to introduce and promote bilingual education in Quechua in Peru have been unsuccessful.

The place of origin for Quechua and a possible genetic relationship to Aymara are still topics of investigation and the locus of debate between historical linguists. One approach supports the view that Quechua originated somewhere in the central Peruvian coast, with later population movements to the north into the central regions and further north, to Ecuador and North Peru, and south to South Peru. The expansion of the Inca tribes took place over a period of less than two centuries. Many of the areas in which the Incas moved to were already speaking Quechua dialects some of which were very similar to the Cuzco dialect which was the common language of the Inca’s empire. In some areas the Incas moved into non-Quechua areas, particularly the Aymara one to the south. However, the use of the Aymara language continued undisturbed even though the Incas’ occasional policy was to enforce major population movements in order to settle problems in specific areas. For some time Quechua continued expanding, at the expense of Aymara, in Bolivia and into the Peruvian Amazon, S. Colombia, Brazil and Chile. By the 18th century popular revolts saw it banned by the Spanish in some periods. The Peruvian and Bolivian independence that came in 1825 was not under the control of any indigenous movement and during the independence years Native Andean languages continued to exist marked as underprivileged languages, with no written form and records, and increasingly abandoned in favor of socially far more acceptable Spanish. This situation has largely continued to this day, though there are now efforts to restore some prestige to these languages. This includes establishing alphabets and a standard written form, at least for each of the various main dialects. This has almost been achieved for Aymara and some dialects of Quechua, though there are still arguments as to what types of alphabets need to be used. There are also growing efforts to introduce native languages as languages of (at least primary) education, to have written works published in the language, and to give it a greater presence in modern media, particularly radio (I am not aware of any Quechua television broadcasting yet).

Campbell, G. L. 1991. Compendium of the World's Languages, Vol. 1 -2. London and New York: Routledge.

Cerrón-Palomino, Rodolfo. 1987. Lingüística Quechua. Centro Bartolomé de las Casas: Cuzco, Peru.

Grimes, B. F., ed. 1992. Ethnologue, Languages of the World. Dallas, TX: Summer Institute of Linguistics.

Linguistic Society of America. 1992. Directory of Programs in Linguistics in the United States and Canada. Washington, DC.

Ruhlen, M. 1987. A Guide to the World's Languages, Vol. 1: Classification. London: Edward Arnold.

Sola, Donald F. and Gary J. Parker. 1964. The Structure of Ayacucho Quechua. Eric: ED 012 043.

Sola, Donald F. and Yolanda Lastra. 1964. The Structure of Cochabamba Quechua. Eric: ED 012 039.

Sola, Donald F. 1967. The Structure of Cuzco Quechua. Eric: ED 012 035.

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