Too Much Spanish in Your Quechua?

Much of this text is fairly specific to the situation of Quechua in Peru,
though most of the points apply generally also to Quechua in Bolivia and Ecuador




Some suggested native Quechua words to use instead of common Spanish borrowings

A word on borrowing: the benefits and the dangers

A warning:  please use these suggestions diplomatically!

Please send me your native Quechua suggestions

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Suggested Native Quechua Words to Use Instead of Common Spanish Borrowings

(ordered alphabetically by the Spanish word)



A suggested native Quechua alternative





a las cuatro

tawa pachata

at four o'clock


yachay wasi



(yuyayta) hap'iy

to understand



thank you

hora (ver también: a las ...)



hospedaje, hotel

qurpa wasi

hostel, hotel


manqus wasi












willariy kamayuq


presidente, jefe


president, boss


yachay suntur



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Borrowing:  the Benefits and the Dangers

As is obvious, Quechua has borrowed and is continuing to borrow a huge number of words from the sociolinguistically more dominant prestige language Spanish.  Borrowing, of course, is not necessarily a bad thing - it can very much enrich a language's vocabulary, as the massive borrowing from Norman French did for English. In the position Quechua currently finds itself, however, these benefits of borrowing are unfortunately far outweighed by its dangers, particularly given the massive and ever-increasing scale of borrowing.

Though for absolutely no good linguistic reason, Quechua remains very much the language of lesser prestige in the face of Spanish.  True, Quechua has influenced Spanish too, with some borrowings and some effects on Spanish pronunciation and grammar, but the traffic is very, very heavily one-way in favour of Spanish.

First of all, borrowing does not enrich a vocabulary when it does not add too, but merely replaces, the native word - and this is increasingly the case in Quechua.

Moreover, once it reaches the proportions it is now reaching in Quechua, and in such sociolinguistic contexts of prestige differences and very widespread bilingualism, there is a very definite danger of wholesale borrowing causing something of a "crisis of confidence" among speakers of Quechua. This is precisely the common sentiment which leads many native Quechua speakers to say that they don't speak Quechua well, or indeed to deny point-blank that they speak it at all.

The massive borrowing of vocabulary is well known as the initial stage in the linguistic phenomenon of “language suicide”, with which Quechua is clearly threatened in the long term. Borrowings on such a scale act as springboards for more fundamental changes: adaptation of the sound system and grammatical system to that of the dominant language. There are clear examples of this already happening: consider the use of originally non-native Quechua sounds such as b, d, g and phonemic e and o; the Bolivian Quechua -s plural for nouns ending in a vowel; and the sentence structure of phrases using the borrowing sichus (‘if’, from Spanish ).

So, massive borrowing is indeed a major part of the threat to Quechua's survival. Hence you are encouraged to use these native Quechua suggestions instead.


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Warning!  Please use these suggestions diplomatically!

However, be careful.  A very important word of warning here!  Given precisely the lack of self-confidence among native Quechua-speakers, particularly those with less formal education, to adopt a haughty policy of telling Quechua speakers that they shouldn’t say libru and that the ‘correct’ Quechua is patara can be very counter-productive.

Be very aware that for many native even monolingual Quechua speakers, the word they know for "book" is simply libru, and they would not even recognise or accept it as non-Quechua.  And they may never have heard the word patara used in this sense at all.

Worst of all, anything which even remotely smacks of a superior, critical attitude will simply reinforce many speakers’ lack of self-confidence in using Quechua - very damaging for its long-term survival.  So while you may want to use these suggestions yourself, absolutely the last thing you should do is to try to ‘push’ or force them on any speaker them as the only proper, acceptable Quechua word.  This attitude is most likely to do far more harm to Quechua than good.  Just use them, if you find they are understood, and the more you say them, the more your listeners will hear them, and the more likely they are to use them themselves. This is the safe way to ‘save’ native Quechua vocabulary.

Moreover, often the words proposed to replace Spanish borrowings vary from place to place.  Indeed, some Quechua supporters merrily coin hosts of new Quechua words that they personally just happen to have come up with and favour, but which don’t mean anything to the average Quechua-speaker.   Those Quechua words most likely to be "recovered" are those which are more natural and instantly understandable to native speakers.

   Most compound nouns are very suitable in this sense, e.g. yachay wasi for Spanish escuela (‘school’):whose component parts one might paraphrase into English as ‘knowledge house’ or ‘learning place’.

   Also suitable are extensions of existing common words to related meanings: thus hap’iy is the normal Quechua word for ‘catch’, or ‘grasp’. In just the same way as English ‘grasp’ can be extended to mean ‘understand’, then so can hap’iy. In most contexts this will be instantly understandable. If necessary to distinguish precise senses of such words, you can add specifying words such as yuyayta (‘know’), so that yuyayta hap’iy refers specifically the sense ‘understand’ and not physical sense of ‘catch’.

   Above all, be very wary of inventing Quechua neologisms yourself! All the words I list here have been supplied to me by native Quechua speakers, I wouldn't dare put my own inventions down. If you're not a native speaker, you can never know how a newly-coined word will really sound to a native speaker. There is a very great danger here of inventing words which sound plain silly to native speakers and which nobody will ever use and which will more likely hold up to ridicule the whole enterprise of trying to resist massive borrowing. In particular, trying to replace a very deeply entrenched borrowing such as televisión with a newly-coined native word is a risky business - there are lots of existing but endangered native words which it is far more worth worrying about and trying to maintain.


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Please Send Me Your Native Quechua Suggestions!

Do you have any more suggestions for native words to replace common Spanish borrowings?

(I insist they must approved by native speakers, though, preferably several of them and ideally from different regions too!!!)

If so, please click here to email them to me.


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