Cusco or Cuzco, Which is it?

Though seemingly a simple matter of right or wrong, issues of spelling can be quite complex.  Different spellings often invoke strong emotions that are less matters of linguistics than of identity and politics.   As a result, they respond to different histories and different arrangements of power.   The city and region that was the home of the Incas exemplifies this.  Variously spelled Cusco, Cuzco, Qosqo, or Qusqu, each has it adherents and experiences different attempts to make it the only one that is correct.

We faced this when we began this blog and restaurant search.  We had long discussions on the matter.  While the “s” spelling seems the preferred in Spanish, although the “z” is also available, in English it is the reverse.  The other two spellings are in versions of Quechua, each with adherents, and claim that the city’s name in Spanish descends from an indigenous word meaning simply “navel” or “center of the universe.”

David always had a history of preferring the Spanish spelling even when writing in English and the “u” spelling in Quechua.  But the difficulties of envisioning a blog in English with a spelling that many would find inaccurate led him to change his mind for the purposes of this project and to argue for plans to integrate a site in Spanish which would be (at some point soon we will put it online).

Graffiti Reversing Cuzco's Normal Order
Graffiti Reversing Cuzco’s Normal Order

It was not just the issues of English that convinced him, however.   In conversations with leading Academics in Cuzco who participate in the University of San Antonio Abad,  he was told that among academics the “z” spelling is preferred since it is the one used in the Spanish colonies and represented Spanish attempts to get at an original Inca pronunciation of the city’s name.  Many academic books about the city, such as anthropologist Abraham Valencia’s “Cuzco Religioso” rely on the “z”.

Nevetheless, Walter and Hebert report that many people, in Cusco, respond very negatively to the “z” spelling.  “They must be foreigners if they write the name that way” is a common expression.  And this, even though airlines arriving in the city tend to use the “z” form of the city’s name.  Or people simply and strongly say “They are wrong.”

In this is a history.   Cuzco’s elite have for many decades been working to enhance the Inca nature of the city and remove many traces of Spain.   As a result, the traditional spelling with “z” was officially banned in 1976 for all municipal publications in favor of the “s” spelling.   But then in 1993 another spelling was introduced that is even more Quechua, “Qosqo”.  This latter, at least in local pronunciation. picks up the sound quality of the consonants of Quechua, since the “q” is pronounced in the back of the mouth, by the throat, while the “c”, like a “k” is in the front of the mouth.

Flags and Cathedral
Flags and Cathedral

The “s” spelling, then, is a bit like the rainbow flag that flies over many city institutions and which is considered the flag of Cusco.  Many people are strongly irritated and feel put upon when they find out that in the world external to Cusco the rainbow flag is most associated with the international movement of Gay rights.  It feels like an assault on local people’s efforts to define themselves.

As a result it seemed the municipality was striking a blow for local Quechua, rather than Spanish mistakes.

Nevertheless, changes had been afoot in the Spanish world since long before the government of Cusco made the spelling changes.  Whatever the original sound the Spanish saw as writable with a “z”, in Spain the “z” increasingly became a sound akin to the English ”th”.  Though Peruvians do not generally pronounce it as “th” they are aware Spaniards do.  Given the prestige and power of Spain they often feel this is somehow the “proper” pronunciation for a “z” in the Spanish-speaking world.  But they know the city of Cusco should never be pronounced as “Cuthco”.  As a result of this and the politics for an Inca Cusco the “z” spelling can often feel very wrong in a strange twining of independence along with dependence on Spain.

But. the issue of why the “z” was there in the first place is a complex one.  Linguistically oriented ethnohistorians increasingly argue that sixteenth century Spanish had a much more complex array of sounds that today have collapsed into either the “s” or “th” pronunciations. It was from this more complex phonal position they heard the sounds of Quechua.  In this language, it is argued, there were two different sounds that today have become simplified into one that to outsiders just sounds like an “s”.  However, one was represented by the Spanish by the letter “z” and that was the original sound of the city’s name.

According to this academic argument, the “z” is the “correct” spelling because it maintains a relationship with that original sound that belonged to the city in its origin.

Pre-Statue Fountain in the Main Square
Pre-Statue Fountain in the Main Square

While the municipality argues that the original Quechua which became “corrupted” by the Spanish as Cuzco was Qosqo, and they argue it meant “navel” or “center of the earth”, students of Quechua notice the “o” is the wrong vowel for the sound in the indigenous tongue and prefer a “u”.

But the debate over the name of the city and its original meaning is not over.  Despite the municipality’s 1975 orders, professor Espinoza’s book is sold at the bookshop of the municipal library even though, according to them, it spells the name wrong.  Furthermore, Espinoza argues there are two possibilities for the earliest meaning of the name of the city.  The one meant navel, he notes, though he spells it with an “a” instead of the “o”, while another word meaning “place of ashes” was used.  This latter emphasized Cuzco as a ritual center, a sacred city where sacrifices of llamas and much more were burned in offerings to deities.

By mentioning this, Espinoza challenges the accepted meaning of the city’s name.  It is not longer a “center” as if of a body, but instead is a holy city dedicated to ritual.

In other words, no matter how one spells the name is to enter into a shifting polemic in which there is no clear right or wrong.  Though the “s” is preferred by many people of Cusco, the “z” has its important adherents as well.  And, in the English speaking world the “z” is dominant because the word was adopted from Spanish at a time when that was the preferred spelling in that language, although the “s” is making inroads among people, such as David, who prefer to adhere to local preferences.

The debate is not over.  It continues to roil.  This is part of the fun of getting close to this very vital city.  One takes on its arguments and discussions in which there is so much complexity and history.  Nothing in this city is one dimensional.

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  1. I was brought up in Spain in the 1960s and 70s. Cuzco was the official name not only in Spanish Spanish but also in Soutamerican Spanish. I assumed that the S took over from the Z because of the way Z is pronounced in South America and in some places in Spain.

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