A New York Woman’s Quest to Preserve Quechua

Quechua is the most widely spoken group of indigenous languages in South America. However, in a world where Spanish predominates, it is extremely vulnerable.

Quechua is a group of closely related languages and dialects spoken by 8 to 10 million people in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. It was the language of the old Incan Empire. 8 to 10 million people may seem like a lot, but that’s for all languages in the family, and a glance at UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger shows that even the healthiest Quechua languages are “vulnerable,”  and several are already extinct.

Quechua’s prestige began to decline during the late 18th century, when the Spanish banned it from public use after an indigenous rebellion led by Tupac Amaru II.  Although Quechua is now an official language in Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru,  it never really recovered. Bruce Mannheim, an anthropology professor  at the University of Michigan, described its current status to the Wall Street Journal:

“Quechua speakers in urban areas make sure their children speak Spanish,” he said. “And their grandchildren only speak Spanish.…Among the different languages, there are a number of them that are threatened with extinction within this generation.”

However, an initiative to preserve the language is coming from an unlikely place: the kitchen table of a 73-year old Brooklyn grandmother.

Elva Ambía grew up speaking Quechua during her childhood in Peru. In 2012, she founded the New York Quechua Initiative to promote the language through musical and cultural events, educational programs and Quechua classes held in Ms. Ambia’s home.  The group has also donated a collection of books about Quechua to the Brooklyn library.

Ms. Ambia told the Wall Street Journal she is confident the language will survive:

“I do not believe Quechua is dying. I cannot accept that. If I am alive, I am going to make it alive.”

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Fragments of a Lost Language Discovered in Peru

A team of archaeologists working in Peru just announced a major discovery: written fragments of a 400-year old indigenous language that has never been seen before. The language is related to Quechua, the language family that includes the tongue of the ancient Incas.

According to National Geographic, the language fragments were found scribbled on  a 400-year-old letter found buried in the rubble of the old church of  Magdalena de Cao Viejo in Peru. The church was thought to be a place where native Americans were brought in an effort to force them to convert to Christianity. Although the letter was found in 2008, the team that discovered it just now revealed its existence to the public. They believe it was likely spoken by a group of indigenous Peruvian fishermen, as texts from Peru during that time period sometimes refer to Pescadora, “the language of the fishermen.”

Archaeologist Jeffrey Quilter told Reuters:

“Our investigations determined that this piece of paper records a number system in a language that has been lost for hundreds of years…We discovered a language no one has seen or heard since the 16th or 17th century.”

The fragments consist of Arabic numerals, the same numbers written out in longhand in Spanish, and finally translated into the unknown language. It’s no Rosetta Stone, but it’s still fascinating, and it shows that the people who originally spoke the language used a numerical system based on increments of 10, just like we do today.

Speaking to National Geographic, Quilter explained that the discovery indicates how diverse the indigenous people of the Americas were before European conquest:

“You know that Chinese curse, ‘may you live in interesting times’—well that was an extremely interesting time. We often think of a confrontation of Spanish and Native Americans, but in almost every location, from Massachusetts to Peru, it was a confrontation of a much more diverse group of people.”

Ohio University Teaches Students Quechua

Forget Spanish and French. Starting in the spring semester, Ohio State University is offering classes in Quechua, the language of the ancient Incas.

Why learn Quechua? The language is ancient, but it’s far from dead. The Inca Empire may have collapsed after the Spanish conquistadors arrived in South America, but the language lives on throughout the Andes. About 10 million indigenous people still speak some variation of Quechua, which is often classified as a language family rather than a distinct language because it contains so many different dialects, some of which are not quite mutually intelligible. Read more