As a macrolanguage with more than 10 million speakers (7 million in Latin America), the Quechua language of the Inca Empire is a big deal as far as indigenous languages go. But to understand the Quechua traditional language, we need to take a trip back through time into a place known as Chinchay. Chinchay, by the way, is what we know today as the Latin American nations of Peru and Ecuador.
Long ago, the inhabitants of Chinchay, the Chancas, were coastal people. They were heavily involved in trade, and that’s how their language spread. The meaning of the Quechua language is, according to some academics, “temperate valley,” and it alludes to the ethnic group that called the Rio Pampas in Apurimac home.
Origins of the Quechua Language
As you might know, the Incas, who were originally from Titicaca, spoke a unique language called Pukina. When they moved to Cuzco, they made some distinct changes to their language. For starters, they learned Aimara, which was the dominant language at that time.
Then there was a war between the Incas and the Chancas, after which the Incas had to start learning the Quechua language. So even though the Quechua language was already spoken throughout the various regions of Peru, it was ultimately the Incas that spread the language to the far southeast when they started their expansion.
Then, in 1575, Toledo declared Pukina, Aimara, and the Quechua language Peru’s national languages. But when this happened, Pukina speakers already spoke Quechua or Aimara, which is why Pukina eventually disappeared and only exists in a few religious catechisms today.
Rules of the Inca Empire Native Language
The Quechua language is an agglutinating and suffixing language. Therefore, it has a set of suffixes added to the root word to make it longer and complete it. The language also orders its sentences starting with the subject, then the object, and then the verb.
To express friendliness and emotions, you simply add suffixes to Quechuan words.
Did you know that up to a third of the words in the Quechua language vocabulary come from the Spanish language? In fact, the amount of loan words is so significant that Spanish sounds like /bb and /g/ that wasn’t part of the language are now becoming part of the language’s sound system. Quechua speakers have been using the sounds in their native language for a long time, but it’s being officiated now. Common loanwords from Spanish include ‘siribisa’ from the Spanish ‘cerveza,’ which means beer, and ‘chufir’ from the Spanish ‘cofer,’ which means driver.
Before the Spaniards arrived and introduced the Latin alphabet as the lingua franca, the Incas didn’t have a written language. The only evidence of recorded information is knotted strings known as khipu. These knotted strings were hung from horizontal cords to represent numbers for census and bookkeeping purposes.
Quechua has been written with the Roman alphabet since the Spanish conquest of Peru. The earliest proof of written Quechua appears in a dictionary printed in 1560by Domingo de Santo Tomas. They wrote Quechua in a Spanish-based orthography until the 20th century, and in 1975, the Peruvian government adopted a new orthography for the language.
Dialects of the Official Language
Just like any other language, there are many different dialects (separate languages)of the Quechua general language spoken throughout the world. Native speakers of the language of the Inca Empire are scattered throughout South America with the majority based in Peru. Many indigenous peoples and Quechua speakers are also fluent Spanish speakers since they had a bilingual education as a result of the Spanish conquest. Here are the main Quechua dialects are spoken in suburban and rural areas alike:
South Bolivian Quechua (Runasimi)
Nearly 1.6 million speakers speak this language in Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile
Cusco Quechua (Qheswasimi, Runasimi)
About 1.5 million indigenous people in Peru speak this language
Ayachucho Quechua (Runasimi)
900,000 people in Peru speak this language
Chimborazo Highland Quichua (Kichwa Shimi, Runa Shimi)
In Ecuador 800,000 people speak this langauge
Puno Quechua (Runa Simi)
500,000 Quechua speakers in Peru speak this language
Huaylas Ancash Quechua (Quechua)
In Peru 336,000 people speak this dialect
Huaylla Wanca Quechua (Runa Simi, Wanca Nunashimi)
This dialect is spoken in Peru by 250,000 Quechua speakers
Northern Conchucos Ancash Quechua (Quechua)
250,000 people in Peru speak this language
Southern Conchucos Quechua (Quechua)
250,000 Quechua speakers speak this language in Peru
Eastern Apurímac Quechua (Runa Simi)
This dialect is spoken in Peru by 200,000 people
Imbabura Highland Quechua (Kichwa Shimi, Runa Shimi)
In Ecuador, 150,000 people speak this language
North Bolivian Quechua (Quechua)
116,000 people in Bolivia speak this language
Kichwa / Cañar Highland Quichua (Kichwa Shimi, Runa Shimi)
In Ecuador, some 100,000 people speak the language.
Common Quechua Phrases and Words
Want to brush up on your oral language skills? Here are some Quechua phrases you can try memorizing!
Hello – Napaykullayki
Please – Allichu
Thank You – Sulpaiki
Excuse Me – Dispinsayuway (from Spanish dispensa)
Yes – Arii
No – Mana
Man – Qari
Woman – Warmi
And here’s a look at the numerals!
One – Hog
Two – Iskay
Three – Kinsa
Four – Tawa
Five – Pisqa
Six – Soqta
Seven – Qanchis
Eight – Pusaq
Nine – Isqon
Ten – Chunka
Modern Quechua Speakers
The Quechua language of the Inca Empire is Peru’s most widely spoken native language. It’s an official language of the country and one seen as the people’s language. Many people use it as an everyday language in rural areas.
You’ll most likely find it in the southern and central highlands of Peru where the majority of native speakers reside. Many Spanish speakers use this official language and they widely recognize the language throughout South America.
Today, 13% of Peruvians speak the Quechua language of the Inca empire as their mother tongue. And the area around Cusco still has the highest number of native speakers of this Inca Empire language.
But the number of native Quechua speakers is falling as Spanish becomes more dominant. In fact, UNESCO recently named this official language vulnerable.
Why is this? Well, it’s because Quechua is primarily an oral language. This is why Spanish is the primary language of education and politics. Although Spanish is not the official language, they use its writing system much more widely throughout South America.
The dwindling number of native Quechua speakers is also due to the difficulties indigenous people sometimes experience. In some areas, they treat the indigenous people differently because they choose using their own language instead of the lingua franca. And for this reason, many Quechua speakers choose to learn Spanish instead of preserving their linguistic roots and language.
Here at Day Translations, we’re passionate about the preservation of languages. Languages are what makes the world go round, and it is in ancient languages like the Inca Empire Quechua that humankind’s origin stories are at their most colorful!