The Politics of Quecha

As one learns a language, one learns a new world and with that new world comes a new set of politics.   

I began my doctoral research in Cusco in 2016 with a seven-week intensive Quechua course at Centro Tinku. Now, two years later, I am finishing up my research by participating in the same program. In the past two years, and over the nearly 14 months that I have lived in Cusco since April 2017, the politics of Quechua have come to the fore of my language-learning experience. 

What I mean by the “politics of Quechua” is a series of questions: What “counts” as Quechua?; Who speaks Quechua “correctly”?; And who gets to decide?  

Quechua is spoken by nearly 10 million people across six Latin American countries. Obviously, with such a wide geographic range, there are variations in accent, vocabulary, and extent to which Spanish is integrated with Quechua. 

Here in Cusco, I have heard on a number of occasions that “real” Quechua is spoken in Cusco (I just want to be clear that not everyone holds this idea). This elitism appears to stem from the history of Incan elites sending their children to school in Cusco when Cusco was the capital of the Incas.  

The current elitism of Cusqueño Quechua is perhaps best exemplified by the Academia Mayor de la Lengua Quechua, or the Highest Academy of the Quechua Language (henceforth AMLQ). The goal of the AMLQ is to standardize Quechua and translate everything, including words and concepts that likely did not exist pre-colonization, from Spanish to Quechua. While this is, in the words of my current Quechua professor, an “admirable” goal, it is not a practical one. The kind of Quechua produced by the AMLQ is not always functional nor is it a form of Quechua spoken by everyday Quechua speakers in and around Cusco.

Here is an example of the AMLQ’s work: I use a Quechua dictionary published by the AMLQ that is titled “Simi Taqe.” Before the publication of this dictionary by the AMLQ, there was no word for “dictionary.” “Simi,” which means “mouth” or “language,” and “taqe,” which is a place where agricultural products are stored, come together to more or less mean “a place where language is stored.” This is an example of a translation that is admirable yet not practical. I should note that the Quechua-speaking family with whom I live uses the Spanish word for dictionary: “diccionario.”

There are a number of debates regarding the Quechua language (such as whether we should speak with words borrowed from Spanish or translate everything and about whether we should use three or five syllables when writing in Quechua). But these debates happen at the level of the academy and the government and hold little importance for everyday speakers of Quechua. However, there are real implications of these debates for everyday Quechua speakers and the regulation of a language can only serve those in power.

Although discrimination toward Quechua speakers is still prevalent, there has been a revival of Quechua language and culture, in part because of the tourism industry, and one can hear Quechua spoken all around Cusco city. However, discrimination has taken on an added layer so that those who do not speak “real” Quechua are considered inferior.

As a researcher from the United States, it is crucial to consider the power relationships that permeate my work. As language is one medium in which power relations play out, I must be attentive to the Quechua that I learn and speak.