Perú has two official languages; Spanish, which was brought over when the Spaniards arrived to South America as conquistadores, and Quechua, which was the language used by the Incan Empire. While there are many different languages spoken in Perú today, Spanish is the most popular language, with Quechua following behind, being spoken mostly in the sierra regions of Perú. Since I am living in the department of Áncash, which contains a large portion of the Andean Mountain chain, Quechua is spoken quite regularly. Consequently, as part of my language training to become a Peace Corps Volunteer, during my first 3 months of in-country training, I received extensive Quechua training with the other Volunteers coming to Áncash. By the end of training, I had received a cursory overview of most of the grammar of Quechua, and was ready to put my new language to practice. However, in my site, Quechua isn’t spoken as regularly as in others, so my knowledge slowly began to wane throughout the months in my site. Occasionally I would practice with my host family, but I was never in a situation in which my knowledge of Quechua was absolutely vital for an interaction with another community member. Everyone speaks some Spanish, and I found myself relying more and more on my Spanish, neglecting my Quechua training.
However, in mid-December I got another booster to my Quechua lessons in the form of another 3-day Quechua taller (training) in Huaráz with my teacher from training. Although I was quite out-of-practice, I still recalled quite a bit of information and communicated quite well with my teacher and the other Volunteers who were in attendance. We reviewed grammar, learned new words, and went out to the market in Huaráz to practice. Practicing was hard; we are very basic Quechua speakers, and it felt imposing to walk up to people selling food and attempt to speak to them in their native language. Eventually, I got over the nervousness and had a very nice, but simple, conversation with a señora who had sold us some food. Throughout the conversation, I found myself improvising and creating new structures and thoughts based on the things we had reviewed, and I was proud of my simple conversation. My teacher even said he was glad with my progress, even though I know I still have a long way to go in my language studies. Even though my knowledge of Quechua probably won’t make-or-break my Peace Corps experience, I still plan on studying, practicing, and learning more so that I can become as fluent as possible in this wonderful language.
And it is a wonderful language. Although all Peruvians tell me how similar Quechua is to English, it really is a thing of its own, with the only similarity to English being the fact that adjectives go before objects instead of after, as it mostly is in Spanish.
While English and Spanish are S-V-O languages (subject-verb-object), Quechua is a S-O-V language, meaning the verb comes at the end of the sentence. For example, the sentence “I am eating bread” is in the S-V-O format, but in Quechua it would be reordered to “I bread am eating” or “Nuqa tantata mikuykaa”. Apart from this different grammatical order, to add description to a word or action in Quechua, you do so, mainly, through the addition of suffixes. For example,
Mishi = cat
Mishi + “kuna” = Mishikuna = Cats
Mishi + “yki” + “kuna” = Mishiykikuna = your cats
Mishi + “yki” + “kuna” + “wan” = Mishiykikunawan = with your cats
So, as you can see, you can make pretty long words in Quechua by adding various descriptive suffixes to the ends of words, be they nouns or verbs. Consequently, this is what makes Quechua a challenge, because a simple word like cat can be modified in many different ways to express different, yet similar meanings. And then of course, you have to wait until the end of the sentence to learn the verb, and sometimes find the context of all of the words that came before. That being said, with practice, your brain adjusts and learns to listen carefully and adapt to the different grammatical structure. While I still have a long ways to go in my Quechua-learning journey, I am excited to keep going so that, perhaps by the end of service, I’ll be the gringo who can give a presentation in Quechua, and not just ask about where you are from.
One final Quechua fact. Quechua not only was used by the Incans, but also by an individual a long time ago in a galaxy far far away:
Yes, Greedo from Star Wars is speaking Quechua in this scene with Han Solo.