The continent of South America is as diverse as it is naturally beautiful. It is a magnificent tapestry woven out of a multitude of civilizations that rose and fell throughout its rich history. Yet when speaking of languages in South America, people limit themselves to either Spanish or Portuguese, which though true to an extent today, is quite a shame, since this continent has a plethora of indigenous languages that have evolved from the ancient civilizations like the Aztecs and the Incas. One such language, which is our pick for the language of the month, is ‘Quechua’ (Ki-chwa or Ke-chwa).
Wait, I thought Quechua was just a brand?
Due to the proliferation of major globalised languages like English, Spanish, French, German, etc., countless smaller yet culturally enriched languages are being overshadowed or plainly forgotten. Quechua is an Amerind language with a myriad of dialects, and is the most widely spoken language of the native people of the American continent, with roughly 8 to 10 million speakers.
How did the name come to be?
There are two purported sources of the name; one is that it is derived from a word that means “temperate valley” referring to the zone in the Andes, while the other source states that the name is based on a tribe of people called ‘Quichua’. After the Spaniards conquered these areas in the 16th Century, Quechua was the general language of communication between the natives and the ‘conquistadores’ and was even adopted by missionaries of the Roman Catholic Church for evangelical purposes.
Where does Quechua stand today?
Today, Quechua enjoys the status of an official language in Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador, along with Spanish. There have been efforts to teach the language as part of intercultural bilingual education in these three countries, but unfortunately this education is available to only a minority of the Quechan speaking people. Since there is little written material for the dissemination of this language, it primarily remains a spoken language.
Since the Spanish conquest of Peru, Quechua has been written using the Roman alphabet, and until the 20th century, it was being written using orthography similar to that used for Spanish. It was not until 1975 that the Peruvian government adopted a new orthography for Quechua.
Owing to its similarity with Spanish, Quechua has started mixing with and getting influenced by Spanish, and vice-versa. This is a particularly precarious path since there can be only one language between these two that will be the heavier influence and will thus overshadow or even engulf the other one, and that is Spanish. Today, there are hundreds of loan words taken by each language from the other. However, globalization becomes a bane for the spread of Quechua, considering the increasing number of speakers that are shifting to Spanish to ensure social and economic progress that they feel Quechua cannot fetch them. Fortunately, the situation is not dire and this language can be preserved through active awareness raising and education.