An Overview of Quechua

the main surviving indigenous language of the Andes


This page is intended as a general introduction to Quechua, its geographical, social and historical context.

Further details on a number of particularly intriguing aspects of Quechua’s sound and grammatical systems, and its relationships with other languages (Spanish and Aymara) have now been moved to a separate page (intended particularly for linguists).


Other pages with general information on Quechua are:

   my general webpage on an Introduction to the Indigenous Language of Latin America, including a fair amount on Quechua;

   the presentation of Quechua (Ayacucho dialect) on Mark Rosenfelder's webpage at, recommended.

This page discusses mainly the Cuzco-Bolivian dialect of Quechua, but covers also many general aspects common to all dialects.




What is Quechua?

History and Geography of Quechua

The Social Position of Quechua


What Is Quechua Like?  A First Impression

Sample 1:  An Old Quechua Play

Sample 2:  Modern Colloquial Quechua  


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What is Quechua?

In subtitling this page I described Quechua as “the main surviving indigenous language of the Andes”.  I’ll first explain briefly why I chose each of these words.



Firstly, Quechua is far from restricted to one country:  it is used in seven, though significant only in three, where it is spoken by around a quarter of the population in each:  Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru.

Secondly, I say Andean not only to indicate the countries, but also the terrain. Wherever its origin lies, and whatever its original pre-Conquest coverage, it is now very predominantly a highland Andean language.  It does have some outposts low down in the Amazon basin (in Colombia, Ecuador, northern Peru and Bolivia), though most of these are due to fairly recent migration of Quechua-speakers from the Andes, and generally date from recent decades or at most centuries, after the Spanish conquest.


Main’ and ‘Indigenous

In calling it the ‘main’ indigenous  language, I want to stress it is big.  Estimates of the numbers of speakers vary wildly from five to twelve million, though the higher ones seem very unlikely to be accurate.  The only truly detailed attempt I know of to date to count Quechua-speakers is by Cerrón-Palomino (1987:76), who gives a total of 8,354,125 (!) speakers, broken down thus (the percentage figures are for Quechua-speakers as a proportion of the total population of that country):




= 19%



= 23%



= 25%



= 0.3%


(Colombia, Brazil and Chile barely exceed 5,000 speakers combined).


These figures date back to censuses taken in the early 1980s or before, so are no longer particularly up-to-date.  For more details on how reliable these figures are, and other sources for details on the situation in Peru, see my other webpage on How Endangered is Quechua?. 

One also has to bear in mind that we are not at all talking about a single monolithic language here, but a wide range of different regional forms of Quechua, some as different from each other as Italian and Spanish, perhaps (for more details on the question of dialect fragmentation, click here).


With these few caveats though, even on estimates towards the lower end of this range, Quechua is in fact the biggest surviving native language not only of the Andes but of the entire New World.  Other significant languages in this region include Mayan in S. Mexico and Guatemala, and Guaraní in Paraguay (the only native language in the Americas that has de facto as well as de iure official status).  For more information on them, click here.

For such a significant language, then, astonishingly little work seems to be done on Quechua.  If you think linguists have got over Eurocentrism, perhaps you should think again:  I was taken aback to see that Quechua does not figure in Comrie (1987), the standard work on The World’s Major Languages – indeed not a single native language of the New World is mentioned.



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History and Geography of Quechua

The history of Quechua, and its resulting dialect geography, is a bit of a mess. For those of us used to fairly straightforward Indo-European dialect geography, this is a bit of a puzzle, not helped by the few details we have on the history of the peoples involved.


You might want at this point to view my page on my Comparative Study of Andean Languages, complete with a map and family tree of varieties of Quechua throughout the Andes.


Broadly, there is a major split between two groups of dialects:  Quechua I and II (or, confusingly, B and A respectively). The II dialects are split north and south by the I dialects in the middle.  Meanwhile, a single southern dialect – Cuzco-Bolivian (or ‘Cuzco-Collao’) – is split again by Aymara, the language spoken in much of Bolivia, particularly around lake Titicaca and in parts of southern Peru (so you get places like the lakeside city of Puno which are trilingual with Spanish).  Linguists looking for an idea of how different the dialects are from each other might like to see a comparative table of phonological inventories of five main Quechua dialects (on an external site).

No end of competing theories exist as to Quechua’s place of origin, and as to it possibly sharing a common origin with Aymara. The theory that seems least viable by a long way is that Quechua originated in Cuzco.  There is plenty of evidence of the most compelling sort that it did not, and it is absolutely certain that it did not start with the Incas, it was around in northern Peru probably at least a millennia before the Incas ever turned up there.

The most viable theory is that Quechua’s origins (at least as far back as we’ll probably ever be able to trace them) lie somewhere in central Peru, about the latitude of modern‑day Lima:  initially it was suggested Quechua might have been initially spoken at or near the coast, though now it’s thought it might rather have had its origins further inland up in the mountains.  From here there would have been an early (first centuries A.D.?) spread of Quechua‑speaking populations north into the central regions, followed by a later (c. 1100 A.D.? – these are very approximate dates) two-pronged move to the north (Ecuador and N. Peru) and south (S. Peru).

Then, in the 1400s and early 1500s, came the Inca expansion, pretty short-lived in that it occurred over less than two centuries.  Because of this, Quechua has often been seen as the ‘Latin of the Inca Empire’, and Cuzco its Rome. There are, however, some big differences which makes the comparison as misleading as it is helpful.

   Firstly, by the time the Inca Empire reached many areas, they had already been speaking Quechua dialects for centuries.  Some of these were very similar to the new Cuzco dialect lingua franca’s (those near Cuzco), some fairly different (Ecuador and northern Peru), and some very different (Central Peru).

[For linguists, this offers an interesting case of what is known as a ‘superstrate’ influence, in that in this case the superstrate was a very closely related variety, arguably in some areas merely a dialect of the same language.  It appears that the Cuzqeño superstrate effects were more powerful in those areas where the dialects were already closer to it and thus required less adjustment.]

   In other areas the conquest was into non-Quechua areas, particularly the Aymara-speaking area to the south. The Incas seem to have had more respect for Aymara-speakers and their language than they did for other tribes whose lands they conquered.  (There is something of a parallel with how the Romans had great respect for the ‘cultured’ Greeks they conquered.)  This may well owe something to the Incas’ myths as to their own origin which looked to the Lake Titicaca area.  Moreover, the Inca nobility was reported to have spoken their own ‘secret language’, which some linguists have suggested might have been Aymara itself.

   The Inca Empire was rather short-lived, offering comparatively little time (between two and one centuries) for Quechua to impose itself on local languages.

   Imperial Inca policy enforced major population movements to settle troublesome areas with ‘loyal’ Cuzco-region tribes. This is what is credited with the expanse of the Cuzco dialect to much of Bolivia in particular.  However, this only seems to have happened in the south of Bolivia, not in the Aymara areas in between.


As you can see, Quechua presents a case of very complex dialect geography, as well as complex relationships with Aymara, which are certainly not yet fully understood.

In fact even after the Spanish conquest brought down the Incas, Quechua continued expanding in some areas:   e.g. significantly at the expense of Aymara in Bolivia (and some other unrelated Andean languages which are now all but extinct – click here for more details on these), and thence even into N. Argentina, as well as small to tiny incursions into the Peruvian Amazon, S. Colombia, Brazil and Chile.  Initially, the Spanish even chose to favour Quechua as a lingua franca for dealing with the indigenous peoples of the Andes.

By the 18th century, however, popular revolts saw Quechua even banned by the Spanish in some periods.  By the 1820s the Andean countries had won their independence from Spain, but ironically the attitude of the western-looking white elite probably even made things worse for Quechua, which has ever since been very much in a rut as a very low prestige and increasingly endangered language.  Over recent decades particularly, the increasing intrusion of the modern, globalised world has only added to the pressure on Quechua.

For more details, there’s plenty more information on Origins, History and Regional Variation in Quechua elsewhere on this website, just click on the link to see.   This includes


As for literature in Quechua, pre-conquest there was some oral literature, and there are some well-known ‘epic/tragedy’ and ‘comedy’ plays (especially Ollantay (still regularly performed around Cuzco, though normally in Spanish translation) and the Tragedy of the End of Atahualpa.  These were written down post-conquest, and in fact their origin is hotly disputed, most informed opinion tending to assume they were in fact authored long after the conquest, perhaps by a certain Spanish priest.



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The Social Position of Quechua

As a glance at any map of Quechua shows, modern political frontiers haven’t been to kind to Quechua. In no country is it a majority language (unlike Guaraní in Paraguay, but like the Mayan languages of S. Mexico and Guatemala). It is generally a very low-prestige language, with – in Peru at least – no television, little radio and very, very little written material published in it.  Its only widespread broadcasting is in traditional huayno and Andean music.

In Peru, at least, education is all but exclusively in Spanish, though many primary teachers who know it will use it with Quechua monolingual pupils and there are at last significant moves to begin teaching in and through Quechua, especially in Bolivia.  All the same, as education and other forms of integration (e.g. military service) spread, Quechua monolingualism is very rapidly declining.

Quechua is very much perceived as a ‘country’ language.  In towns it is fast dying out:  in Cuzco itself, for instance, we seem to be at the fatal turning point just now. Many Cuzqeños over 35 or so usually spoke it at home as children and are fluent, though use it little; of those under 35, many understand but are very reluctant to speak it.

One often comes across remarkable indications of just how low its prestige is.  Native speakers will, in towns, often deny point-blank that they speak Quechua:  to do so would be an admission of an undesirably humble social background, and this even among very poor stall-holders in markets, for instance. Yet having just pointedly denied it (especially in front of non-Quechua speaking Peruvians or gringos), the same people will then amongst themselves speak generally in Quechua!  Take them up on this and they will insist that they don’t speak ‘correct’ Quechua – the self-important Quechua Academy has a lot to answer for in promoting itself as the authority on ‘pure’ Quechua.

In small towns and villages this is not so much the case, and the young do commonly speak Quechua. Generally, the more remote the settlement, the more it is spoken:  in small, out-of-the way villages in many parts it remains the everyday language, though anyone in a remotely formal context (stallholders, local officials, etc.) will be fluent in Spanish, and even most peasant farmers will have excellent to fair Spanish.

The situation looks bleak, then:  despite the millions of speakers, extinction seems on the cards long-term if nothing changes soon. The ray of hope, however, is that things are starting to change. Indeed, the situation as I have described it prevails in Peru, but in Bolivia and Ecuador its status is much improved of late, thanks to the success of indigenous movements. Bilingual education is advancing in both these countries, at least at primary levels.  And in Cochabamba, Bolivia’s third city with over half a million inhabitants, Quechua is still relatively common on the streets. Even in Peru, things finally seem to be turning a little more in Quechua’s favour, though it is still too little, and will very soon be too late.

Click to follow the links to my other pages for more details on who speaks Quechua, the current sociolinguistic position of Quechua, and the chances of it surviving long term.


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What Is Quechua Like?

For a first impression of what Quechua looks and sounds like, here are two samples.  Both are in the Cuzco-Bolivian dialect, which is also the dialect discussed in the whole of this presentation, except where explicitly stated otherwise.

In places I have had to use the symbols of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), and wherever I have, the symbols appear as text in this shade of green, and within square brackets [like this].  To see these symbols properly, your computer has to have installed the same IPA font I use, namely the SILDoulosIPA font.  To see how to get this to work on your computer, click here (should take about 3 minutes at most).



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An Old Quechua Play

The first sample of Quechua is from a rare old play, most likely composed in the first or second century after the Spanish conquest, Atau Wallpay P’uchukakuyninpa wankan – “Tragedy of the End of Atahualpa”, the last Inca ‘Emperor’ captured by the Spanish for ransom (see also my bibliography page). This was to have his prison cell filled up once with solid gold and twice with silver, which his people duly did;  the Spaniards then put him to death anyway.  What follows are his opening lines in the play.

They are written – sad, but typical, to say – according to just ONE of the competing orthographical norms for Quechua:  the Bolivian version of one author’s interpretation of the five-vowel (‘pentavocalic’) spelling system (back to this later), very ill-suited to native Quechua but used by bilinguals in Spanish.

Some hints as to pronunciation are given below:  fuller details for those who know some phonetics are given here.


Pronunciation Key:

   <h> after a consonant (except <c>) is a so-called ‘aspirated’ consonant, pronounced somewhat like that consonant with a forceful English [h] sound immediately after it. 

   apostrophes after consonants denote ‘ejective’ pronunciations of those consonants, an even more forceful sound, unusual for European languages

   <ch> is pronounced as in English and Spanish = [tS] – though note that this too can be aspirated:  <chh> = [tSH]

   the rest of the spelling is pronounced as is Spanish, i.e.: <j> = [h], <ll> = [´],  <ñ> = [ø]

   <i> is pronounced more like [e], and <u> more like [o], where they occur in contact with <q> or <j>.   Click here for more details.


Sinchiq munasqaykuna,

My dearly beloved

Wamra ñust’akunallay,

Young princesses,

nanaq llakiypimim sunquy,

My heart is in grievous pain,

ukhuymim llaqllapayasqa,

My inside gnawed away,

yuyayniymim chinkasqanña.

My reason fled.

Uk llakiytamim paqarini.

I have woken to suffering.

Imarayku kunan tuta

For this night past

muspayniypi yananchani

In my sleep I was racked

llaki phutillatataqmi,

By grievous affliction,

musquyniypiri rikuni

In my dreaming I have seen

Inti, maylliq Taytanchikta

The Sun, our purifying Father,

yana q’ushñinpi pakasqata,

Hidden in black cloud,

llapa hanaqpachatari

While all the heavens,

llapa urqukunatawanri

All the mountains,

puka puka rawrasqaqta

Blazed so red

pillkukunaq qhaqunta hina.

Like the red in the breasts of the Pillkus.



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Modern Colloquial Quechua

This second example is a modern one, from broadly the same dialect.  It is a transcription from an ‘interview’, taken from the Autobiography of Gregorio Condori Mamani.

Borrowings from Spanish appear in bold. The book was originally published in the then official five-vowel alphabet;  I have switched this text to the now official three-vowel alphabet in the one word that needs changing:  noqa is now nuqa, and made the other minor changes required for official spelling.


Chhaynam vida kashan. Ignoranciallaypim nini: chay Taytachaq llagankunataq chhayna niraq nak’ariypaq causa, tawa p’unchaw vidapaq … chayqa, imanaptinmi mana maskhapachu hanpirunku?  Ña watakunaña chhaynata warmiyta nirani, paytaqmi niran:

– Chaypaqsi extranjero mama Killata rin.

Chaypaq hinataqmi chay p’unchawkuna lliw callekunapi rimay kan, gringokunas avionpi semanantin purispa mama Killaman chayanku, nispa.  Nuqamanta rimayllachu si no kanman.



My (fairly literal) translation:

Such is life. In my ignorance I say:  if the wounds of this God are the cause of so much suffering, for four days of life… Why don’t we look for him and treat him? That’s what I said to my wife years ago, and she replied:

– They say that’s why the foreigners went to the Mother Moon.

In fact, just in those days, in all the streets there was talk of how the gringos, travelling for a week in a plane, had reached the Mother Moon. All that sounds like just tall stories to me though.


For a full phonemic and phonetic transcription, and a full grammatical analysis of the word and sentence structure, click here. 



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