Enigmas in the Origins of the Andean Languages: 
 Applying New Techniques to the Unanswered Questions




This summary is intended for a general readership of Andean scholars.  Readers who specialise in linguistics should click here for a different summary more oriented to their interests.


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Many of the key questions in the (pre‑)history, archaeology and ethnology of the central Andes revolve around the origins, identity and relationships between the peoples who speak the two great surviving language families:  Aymara (also known as Jaqi or Aru) and Quechua.  In principle, the historical and comparative study of these languages themselves has great potential to shed light on the processes and stages by which these language families came to spread so widely throughout the Andean countries, when they did so, starting from which homelands, and thus which cultures and population migrations they are to be associated with.

Yet despite the four decades that have now passed since the first groundbreaking work on these issues, linguists have still not reached a consensus either on the most basic questions in the traditional classification of the many dialects within the Quechua family, or on whether it is ultimately related to Aymara or not.  Early attempts were dogged by the very limited research then available on those languages, and serious methodological problems in linguistics.  A great deal has now changed since the difficult early days of Andean linguistics, however, thanks to a great deal of research and debate over the years.  Beyond the Andes, too, the last few years have seen linguists and geneticists increasingly working together on new, much improved techniques for answering these questions.  So far they have been applied mostly to European and Australian language families;  the time is now ripe for a major new comparative study of the Andean languages. 

This article presents the first major results from a three‑year research and fieldwork project covering (so far) twenty‑one varieties of Quechua, Aymara and Chipaya from Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia (our full data are also available on our website download page).  It uses new, more sensitive linguistic techniques to make detailed comparisons and measurements of how similar all these language varieties are in both their vocabulary (lexis) and their sound systems (phonetics).  It also applies new means of interpreting the results to help understand what they really mean for the key questions about the historical relationships between those languages and the contacts between the peoples who speak them. 

This first article focuses on similarities and differences in vocabulary, and brings powerful new evidence that the two language families Quechua and Aymara do not demonstrably stem from a common source, despite intense contact between them.  The lexical data also support the general objections already raised to even the most basic classification of Quechua dialects:  the split between Quechua I (Central) and II (North/South) branches appears to be a misleading idealisation, and our results are more compatible with a more gradual spread and break-up of the family during its early history, with many forms of Quechua (among them several bound for imminent extinction) intermediate between the main two surviving QI and QII groups.

We also provide important new data on other important questions in the classification and history of the Andean languages:  where the northern Peruvian varieties of Quechua fit into its family tree and history;  and for the Aymara family, whether the two Central Peruvian forms of Aymara, alias Jaqaru (Tupe) and Kawki (Cachuy) should be considered quite separate languages, or just very closely related varieties of the same language.  Finally, we also discuss what can and cannot reliably be inferred on the vexed question of dating the origins and phases of expansion of Quechua and Aymara. 


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If you’re a historical linguist interested in more details of the new methods we use to investigate these questions, click here for a different summary more oriented to those interests.



click on the links below to go back to our webpages on: 


A Comparative Study of Andean Languages

Quechua Language