An Unequal Relationship, Quechua and Spanish,

Football and the Competition of Daily Life in Peru (Photo: David Knowlton)

Have you ever seen a person come alive and shed years like last season’s skin? I did, just the other day in a Cuzco coffee house. I was talking with someone I had met some days ago in another city, who was Peruvian from Cuzco. He started talking to me in Quechua and so much weight fell from him. His eyes sparkled with vigor and joy.

He is bilingual Quechua and Spanish. I recently went to his town and met his extended family. You should have seen the happiness in him when he told them that I spoke Quechua too. While my ability in the language is basic, still there was a palpable excitement in the air.

To understand it, you would have to know about how language fit together. They are seldom equal in people’s lives and practice.

I am from the US Mexican border, West Texas. All of us had to learn Spanish in elementary school, from first grade, since we were right up against Mexico and the vast majority of the population of our city was Hispanic. Even though we Anglo-Americans used Spanish all the time in cross ethnic communication and, sometimes, even among ourselves, few Anglos learned to speak it well.

Linguist Jane Hill has studied and written about how Anglos on the border mangle Spanish as a means of asserting their identity as English speakers and as a means of placing themselves in a higher status than Spanish speakers in the same region.

Indigenous Woman Knitting under the Arches (Photo: David Knowlton)
Indigenous Woman Knitting under the Arches (Photo: David Knowlton)

Yet, among people identified as Hispanic, you find a wide set of varieties of Spanish, one of which is Spanglish and even a mixture, a dancing back and forth between Spanish and English. Not as many Anglos from the border can do that high wire act of bouncing back and forth between the two languages in order to make sense like in an Olympics of gymnastics. But most Hispanics from the US side of the border do it every day.

A similar notion seems to govern bilingualism here. I think there is an ideology of language here that is strong and holds that if you speak Spanish, it is all you need. There is longer any need to speak Quechua. Spanish covers everything. You do not even do the play back and forth we did on the border, you drop the language and speak Spanish.

I was talking with some people about this the other day and a man told me that his brother would return to their community from Lima, where he has only lived a few years after having grown up speaking Quechua. He said that he had “forgotten” Quechua while in Lima and no longer would speak it. Person after person will tell you about friends or family who can speak the language but refuse in many circumstances because of claims to status.

Quechua Speaking Women Conversing in Cuzco (Photo: David Knowlton)
Quechua Speaking Women Conversing in Cuzco (Photo: David Knowlton)

Quechua speakers are often stigmatized by other Quechua speakers (who choose to emphasize their command of Spanish). Some people, both Quechua and Spanish speaking, have argued as a result that Quechua is dying.

One such is the economist Richard Webb. Recently he engaged in a debate on the issue in Lima with anthropologist Patricia Ames. Webb supplied the requisite econothink: the market requires Spanish and people’s self interest leads to that. Ames made arguments of the utility and importance of Quechua to people.

Afterwards a firestorm in defense of the Inca’s tongue filled the Peruvian internet.

Nevertheless, as Bruce Mannheim, the eminent Quechuanist writes in his monograph on the tongue, Quechua inhabits a word that is structured unequally in favor of Spanish and Spanish domination. At the same time, more and more people are demanding giving more and more value to Quechua and other Peruvian indigenous languages, such as through the celebration yesterday, May 27th, of Native Languages Day and through efforts such as obtaining data on the extent of indigenous languages within Peru.

Quechua Speaking Children and Modern Culture (Photo: David Knowlton)
Quechua Speaking Children and Modern Culture (Photo: David Knowlton)

I look forward to the day when Quechua is not only spoken throughout the rural areas of Cuzco, but vividly celebrated in everyday life and public functions, such as in writing grant proposals, with in the city of Cuzco; and when the blonds on Peruvian television gossip with one another about trivialities and the serious stuff of economy and politics in Quechua; and soap operas of international distribution appear in Quechua with subtitles in Spanish for those who do not understand this Peruvian tongue.

I look forward to the time when the trivial paperwork and the serious covenants of Peruvian national government take place in Quechua. This may be a pipe dream, an impossible fantasy for many, but as indigenous languages revive such things become possible.

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