What is Quechua?

Quechua is a family of languages indigenous to the Andean region of South America. While scholars have had different opinions about the specifics of categorizing the many variations, it is generally agreed upon that there is an initial divide between Central Quechua (those presently found in the central Peruvian highlands) and Peripheral Quechua, those varieties spoken to the north (Northern Peru, Ecuador, Colombia) and to the south (Southern Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Chile) of Central Quechua. These two branches are then subdivided themselves into additional branches. Certain varieties are mutually intelligible; however there are some branches that are completely unintelligible to others. The name "Quechua" emerged after contact between native Andeans and the invading Spanish; native Quechua speakers frequently refer to Quechua as runa simi. It is difficult to ascertain how many people currently speak Quechua languages. Although estimates range from 8-20 million speakers, this data can be difficult to acquire and assess for various reasons. Many estimates seem to address only those Quechua speakers living in the Andes, but as we see in Living Quechua, there are Quechua speakers all around the world.

Historical Background

Many people today associate Quechua with the Inka, the ruling power who held control of a large swath of South America just before the arrival of the Spanish. However, research has shown that Quechua languages existed well before the Inka's relatively short rule. The Inka did use Quechua as an administrative language, however researchers argue that beyond training local elites for the purpose of ruling, the Inkas did not seem to impose the language across the whole empire. Rather, they allowed the multiethnic groups they conquered to maintain their previous languages.

The Spanish arrived in South America in 1532, and in the following decades began to implement their plans to colonize the territory. Several early administrators noted in official documents the numerous languages that they encountered in what is now Peru; some estimated there were hundreds, others declared there to be thousands. Scholars argue that Spanish colonialism supported the erasure of not only ethnic difference, as diverse indigenous peoples were lumped together under the single title of "Indian," but also linguistic difference, as Quechua was seen and privileged as "the" language of the "Indians." It was under the Spanish that Quechua was spread through the Andean region. Other languages indigenous to South America have persisted, such as Aymara, however Quechua is the most widely spoken on the continent.

There are no records that Quechua was written before Spanish colonialism. Wanting to use the language to convert "Indians" to Catholicism, the Spanish used their alphabet to write Quechua, however there was no standardization to these practices. During the 300 years of Spanish colonialism, the number of native Quechua speakers who learned to read and write in Quechua was indeed very small. During the 200 years since colonialism ended, the Peruvian nation-state has failed to make this a priority. (Ecuador and Bolivia have had their own trajectories.) Today, Quechua remains a predominantly oral language, and there are a limited number of texts in Quechua languages.

Quechua and Spanish have coexisted in the Andes for 500+ years. Yet during both colonialism and statehood, Quechua languages and their speakers have faced severe discrimination and abuse by those in positions of social, political, and economic power. Governments have failed to recognize Quechua speakers as full citizens, argued against declaring Quechua as a official language of the state. In Peru, only relatively recently has Quechua become accepted in courts of law, and as a language of study in schools. The intense stigma associated with Quechua languages has been internalized by some, who are ashamed to speak Quechua in certain circumstances, or who don't teach their children Quechua. At the very same time, many Quechua speakers find creative ways to defy such discrimination, to break down the stigma. Quechua, then, can be understood a site of negotiation, a site of struggle. It is a struggle that has persisted for hundreds of years, in many different forms—and it continues today.

A UNESCO Endangered Language?

Even though millions of people speak Quechua languages around the world, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (otherwise known as UNESCO) has declared many of these languages to be endangered. But what exactly does that mean?

The following information is taken directly from the UNESCO FAQs on endangered languages: "A language is endangered when its speakers cease to use it, use it in fewer and fewer domains, use fewer of its registers and speaking styles, and/or stop passing it on to the next generation. No single factor determines whether a language is endangered, but UNESCO experts have identified nine that should be considered together:
- Intergenerational language transmission
- Absolute number of speakers
- Proportion of speakers within the total population
- Shifts in domains of language use
- Response to new domains and media
- Availability of materials for language education and literacy
- Governmental and institutional language attitudes and policies including official status and use
- Community members' attitudes toward their own language
- Amount and quality of documentation."

As it is presented, it seems that UNESCO hopes that by calling a language "endangered," it might call attention to the language in the hopes of strengthening it. And while this very well might be a possible outcome, qualifying a language as such is not without its complications.