Quechua the ancestral language in Peru
Of all the languages spoken in ancient Peru, such as Aymara and Puquina in the southern highlands, or Mochica, Tallan and Quingnam on the north coast, there was one language that was destined for a key role: it first became the lingua franca of the vast Inca empire and then later was used by the Spaniards to impose Catholicism and in general their domination over the inhabitants of the conquered empire.
In the ninth century AD, this language, Quechua, was just one of many spoken around the territory that later became Peru, and was found in just the central coast and highlands of what is today the department of Lima. From here, over the following centuries the language spread gradually into neighboring territories in the department of Ancash, Huanuco, Jum’n and Pasco.
The rise of the Chincha kingdom (today the lea department) in the thirteenth century, was based in the power of its seafaring prowess used for trade and fishing, giving Quechua a boost. By then, there were two groups of dialects which were highly different from each other: the Chfnchay and the Yungay.
It was thanks to the Chincha traders that this brand of Quechua was to spread across the Andes. It is interesting to note that during the same era, the language most widely spoken in the Cuzco area was Aymara, another of the ancient Peruvian languages to have survived until today.
When the Incas, who were more Aymara than Quechua, began to push outwards the boundaries of their growing empire, they found that the Chinchay dialect of Quechua was spoken in most of the vast tracts of land conquered by the Incas. This nudged them into adopting Quechua as the lingua franca instead of Aymara.
To be able to comprehend how Quechua theater flourished at this time, one should note that at the start of the twentieth century, the city of Cuzco had a population that was largely Quechua- speakers only, while the elite were bilingual (Quechua and Spanish). There were few who spoke only Spanish.
Today, this situation has changed radically, as there are few citydwellers who are solely Quechua-speakers. However, a high percentage of Cuzco inhabitants continue to be bilingual, together with a large number of solely Spanish speakers.
All in all, Quechua continues to be spoken on a day-to-day basis in Cuzco homes, and is also a vital part of literary creation and many of the major events that take place in the city. An example of its literary importance can be found in the work of poet Andres Alencastre (1909-1984), widely considered Peru’s greatest Quechua poet. Events held in Quechua include the staging of Inti Raymi, the Inca Festival of the Sun, which in a way marks the continuation of the early twentieth-century Quechua theater. What is more, Quechua lives on in the tales and legends that folk tradition has handed down both in the city of Cuzco as well as in the rural parts of the department.
Quechua or runa simi, is a suffix-based language, where most expressions are structured by tagging on endings to basic terms. For example, wasi (house) becomes wasiy (my house), wasikunapaq (for the houses) and wasinchikmanta (near our house).
Nearly all Quechua vocabulary carries the accent in the penultimate syllable. Exceptions can indicate another meaning: for example, warmaya (with the usually accented syllable) means ‘poor boy’, while warmaya means “that’s the boy”.
Quechua is practically bereft of definite articles, conjunctions, prepositions or different endings to indicate gender (as with most Latin languages). To differentiate gender, Quechua uses modifying nouns such as warmi waya (girl) and qari wawa (boy). Quechua’s phonetic characteristics involve just three vowels: i, u and a, while the language does not make use of the consonants b, d, g, f or the Spanish double r, and only presses them into service to assimilate words borrowed from Spanish.
Quechua is a highly musical and concise language, and lacks roots that appropriately translate words like ‘engine’ or ‘gasoline’, but is richly expressive in the rural context, due to Andean Man’s close contact with Nature. Here, Quechua features many terms not found in other languages such as Spanish, including allay (dig potatoes from the earth), haypuy (give everyone an equal share), nakay (kill animals for food) and chaqllay (build a provisional structure with cane).
Many Quechua terms have seeped into the Spanish language in Peru. When macho men take off their ponchos and play soccer on the cancha (soccer field) like pumas after having worked in the chacra (field) with their lampa (spade), they do so using Quechua terms.