On Spelling the Name of the Imperial City

Indignities and inequalities abound in this world. People who seek to reclaim their own vision of themselves, though transformed through the history of European colonialism, have faced this cruel irony. One example, is the name of the Imperial Capital of the Incas, Cusco or Cuzco.

The city suffers from the loss of its Empire when the Spanish wrenched from it the status of capital and passed that to the coastal city of Lima with its river and temple of the speaker. It also suffers from political dependency on a central government and conflicts among its elites over the best use of economic resources and how best to develop the city. Furthermore, it suffers in its claims to its won identity through the Quechua language.

Academics challenge many of the stories and claims of local intellectuals. The scholars hold the Inca Empire was relatively short, built on the advances of prior civilizations such as Wari, Tiwanaku, and Moche, and that Cuzco is not the heartland of the Quechua language. Rodolfo Cerrón Palomino, for example, of Lima’s prestigious Catholic University affirms that the Incas actually spoke Puquina, not Quechua, though they came to use that language as a language of government even though it has greater depth in northern Peru.

The people of Cuzco lose not only the honor of present glory but face the loss of their idealized past. This can feel very cruel. It also can have political weight.

As a means of restoring honor and value, there have been debates in this important place about how the name of the city should be spelled.

City of Cuzco
City of Cuzco

While many prefer to call it Qosqo, in an Quechanized re-creation of the name, the sound of the letter q (pronounced in the back of the mouth) is something most Peruvian Spanish speakers find difficult, if not impossible, and foreigners–such as English speakers–also cannot pronounce.

As a result, in the past there was struggle over the z-spelling (Cuzco) — received from the early days of the colonies and defended by scholars as properly representing the historic pronunciation of the city, since the z and the s referred to different phonemes, and to historical correctness — versus the s spelling (Cusco) currently preferred in official city fora and among some intellectuals who may or may not grasp the complexity of the issues.

People claimed the z spelling was an insult, because the Dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy defines it as a “small dog.” They argued that the Spanish foisted this definition on the people of the City as a cryptic insult. As a result, they claim the s spelling is necessary in order to avoid the insult.

However, the same Dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy defines the s spelling–with its different pronunciation in Spain from the z spelling–as also referring to a “small dog”.

In other words, neither spelling saves the people of the great city at the center of Tawantinsuyo from the insult that they see in the pairing of Spanish and Quechua.

The etymology of the Spanish word Cuzco or Cusco to refer to canis lupus is obscure to this writer, though it is also clear that no matter where one looks there is controversy around the names of the City, whether in Quechua or in Spanish, much less when spelled in other languages.

Although the municipality of Cuzco disposed in 1990 that the s spelling is official, followed by the national government in 1993, still the z spelling remains the most common in the Spanish speaking world, not to mention English speaking world outside of Peru.

There is a distinct tendency towards the s spelling, nonetheless, out of respect for the preferences of official Cusco. However, one must also respect the strong arguments of Cuzco’s own students who insist on the accuracy of the z spelling despite official statements.

Kausachun Qosqo
Kausachun Qosqo

Foreigners find themselves in a difficult space. Not only do you come from places that have possibly engaged in colonialism, like it or not you are walking into the middle of an internal polemic and into a problem where no matter how you try to be respectful you are likely to be disrespectful at the same time.

At Cuzco Eats, or Cusco Eats, we have decided to use both spellings, the z in English and the s in Spanish, although we are likely to offend some with either.

Though indignities and insults abound in this world, it is not our intention to lend ourselves to such, other than inadvertantly at best. We respect and support the struggles of peoples to gain legitimacy and dignity in the world and our purpose is to present the culture of Cusco-Cuzco to the world for its greater appreciation.

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