Quechua is an awesome language to take on if you are planning to spend any amount of time in the Andes region of south American and while there plan to talk with the local people. But, how hard is Quechua to learn?
Well, once you get over the suffixes it is moderately easy for an English speaker.
- Vocabulary – If you have a background in Spanish then you are at an advantage as 30% of Quechua vocabulary is of a Spanish origin. But be aware words are formed from base roots with suffixes added to the end which is very different to English vocabulary.
- Grammar – The word order is s-o-v which takes time to familiarise yourself with and words are formed from roots with often multiple suffixes added to the end. These grouping are then put together with other similar forms to make up a sentence. The beauty of this is that there are few irregularities for verbs, nouns and so on which makes learning quicker. The initial problem is that there are so many suffixes to learn.
- Speaking/Listening – A big pron issue is going to be producing the ejective sounds that are common in this language. They use parts of the mouth and throat that an English speaker wouldn’t be familiar with. Also there is this aspirated puff of air sound that is commonly used too. But overall you are not dealing with tones or strange intonation so it shouldn’t be too difficult with practice.
- Writing/Reading – The writing system uses latin alphabet, easy right? But there are two things to keep in min. The ch vs chh double h rule for spelling which denotes an aspirated pronunciation and the apostrophe use like in p’ is used for ejective pronuncation devices.
How Hard is Quechua to Learn Really?
Quechua has developed side by side with Spanish and so Spanish language has had a significant impact on the Quechua vocabulary.
It is believed something in the region of one third of all words have a Spanish root. And there is some really interesting examples.
- Beer — sirbisa — from the Spanish cerveza
- Dog — piru — perro
- School — iskwila — escuela
- Good — bwenu — bueno
- Donkey — burru — burro
This is going to give anyone who is vaguely familiar with Spanish a bit of head start. Words are formed differently to European languages with a heavy use of suffixes onto base root words. This makes word formation logical but certainly unfamiliar to an English speaker.
There are a few key features that make the Quechua language tricky. Lets dive in!
- Word Order – In Quechua the word order is usually subject-object-verb but because objects are denoted by suffixes the word order is more free than in other languages.
- Suffixes – The use of a suffix is a key component to get your head around with this language. In Quechua you will have a root word to which you attach a suffix to denote some form of meaning. You can then collect together different roots + suffixes to form sentences. There are two types of suffix. The dependent suffix which can’t exist on its own and covers things like verb tense, subject and object markers. Then there are independent suffixes which can be used for multiple parts of speech and cover things like emphasis, attitude, certainty and topic. In summary, there are many different suffixes to learn which take some practice to apply in a sentence structure.
- Pronouns – There are a number of subject pronouns but also keep in mind that the subject is denoted by a suffix on the verb. These subject suffixes also depend on the object in the sentence. This can get complicated fast.
- Nouns – Nouns can be made into plurals with a suffix. Unlike in romance languages the nouns are non gendered.
- Prepositions – There are a whole load of useful suffixes which act as prepositions. This is one of the easier aspects of the language.
- Adjectives – They are placed before the nouns and don’t change for plurality.
- Verbs – The tense of the verb is denoted by a suffix. In terms of special verbs like be and have there is a form ka-y which changes suffix for the specific subject.
- Auxiliary and modal verbs – Some modals function as suffixes and other as stand alone root verbs which have their own suffixes.
- Direct and Indirect Objects — There are certain suffixes for direct objects and indirect objects, and also special rules like that the indirect object has a different suffix depended on whether it can be moved or not.
- Questions – There is suffix marker attached to the relevant word in the question sentence.
The biggest problems new learners of Quechua have is the production of the ejective sounds which require the use of different parts of the mouth and throat. The meaning of many words can change dramatically if you mispronounce certain words.
- Consonant sounds – There are three types of consonant sounds in Quechua – normal, aspirated and ejective. The apirated sounds are produced with a quick blow of air like the p in pirate. The ejective sounds are produced by stopping air flow temporarily and then releasing it. The throat, lips and other parts of the mouth are used to produce these sounds and this process can feel quite unfamiliar to English speakers.
- Vowel sounds – There are 5 vowel sounds and 6 diphthongs in Quechua. None of which are too difficult to pronounce.
- Stress – Stress is pretty simple in Quechua. Usually the second to last syllable is stressed.
- Intonation – Intonation isn’t used in a similar way to English. So there is no upward intonation for questions and exclamatory statement don’t require a change in tone.
The Quechua writing system uses the Latin alphabet script. In terms of spelling, aspirated consonant sounds are shown by adding an h after the initial consonant. For example ch vs chh. In the case of ejective consonants, you use an apostraphe to denote the ejective sound. For example p vs p’.
This system of writing has been used since the arrival of the Spanish. However, the Peruvian government attempted to adopt a new writing system in 1975. This has meant there is disagreement as yo which system to use and the new system has both supporters and opponents.
Why Learn Quechua?
Beyond the challenge of taking up a new language for the first time there many reasons to learn Quechua.
- The language has a rich cultural history which includes the colourful fashion of the people, a fantastic cuisine and a unique style of Andean music heard nowhere else. If you dive into the language then you could be jamming along to some of the local music in no time at all.
- The language lacks the irregularity of many romance languages. There are few irregular nouns, adjectives and verbs. There is also no gendered nouns to worry about. So, if you are looking to study a cool new language, this one isn’t as difficult as say Chinese or Japanese.
- Quechua is an agglutinated language. This means you have base root words upon which you add suffixes to denote additional meaning. This style of word and sentence formation is a fascinating form and will be unfamiliar and challenging to a native English speaker.
- It is the language of the Inca, a powerful people very important to the history of South America. The number of indigenous languages in the South America is decreasing and in learning Quechua you are showing solidarity with the local people.
Who Speaks Quechua?
The Quechua language is spoken by people in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Chile, Argentina and Colombia. Most of these people live in the Andes region, a mountain range that runs from north to south for much of the South American continent. There are believed to be something in the region of 10 million speakers of the language but the most recent census figures underestimate this number.
- Peru – 3.8 million
- Bolivia – 2.1 million
- Ecuador – 2.3 million
- Chile – 8200
- Argentina – 900 thousand
- Colombia – 16 thousand
The numbers for how many speakers in each country speak Quechua are pretty dated but they are kinda useful to give you an idea.
Is Quechua Similar to Spanish?
In term of shared vocabulary it is believed that Quechua shares around 30% of the same vocabulary as Spanish.
However, in terms of grammar the two are very different. Quechua has base root words to which are attached suffixes to denote meaning. So, in a single word you could have the root+suffix+suffix. This is very different from Spanish which is an analytical language meaning that there is only ever one unit of meaning in a single word.
Also, Quechua has a loose subject-object-verb word order while for Spanish the word order is usually subject-verb-object.
Is Quechua a Dying Language?
Quechua is certainly struggling when compared to the popularity of other languages like Spanish and in some cases English in the region. For much of the 20th century, the learning of the language was actively obstructed. However to answer the question, it is important to understand that Quechua isn’t just found in one form. There are a number of dialects spread across the Andes region and as such different dialects are seeing different outcomes.
In recent years the governments of Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru have put a heavy emphasis on the revitalisation of the language, while the opposite could be said in countries like Chile, Colombia and Argentina. Importantly, because the language is more often used orally than written down it doesn’t have as much of an impact as Spanish in the community and is often crowded out.
The general trend for indigenous South American languages isn’t positive, but only time will tell what happens to Quechua in the long run.
Is Quechua a Language or a Dialect?
The term Quechua is used to describe a family of languages that have been around long before the Inca and the conquistadors. Today there are around 24 dialects which are often divided into 3 categories called Northern, Central and Southern Quechua.
Northern Quechua is found to the east of Ecuadorian capital Quito, central Quechua is found in the Andes to the north-east of Lima in Peru and southern Quechua stretches from Ayacucho in Peru to Sucre in Bolivia.
The most popular dialect is the Cuzco Quechua of Peru. However, while you can probably be understood by other dialects, there are going to be some big differences and misunderstandings.
What Are Some Quechua Words?
There are number of interesting words that have actually made there way into English often times via Spanish. You will certainly have heard of these before. A few of these are as follows.
- Puma – the indigenous mountain lion
- Quinoa – the in vogue substitute for rice, popular in cosmopolitan capitals the world over
- Llama – the woolly pack animal of Andean mountain culture.