Quechua Language Introduction
Quechua, Simplified Language Course
by Jan Willem van Ee, Doorn, The Netherlands
This is copyrighted material under Dutch Law (Auteurswet 1912)
Unless written permission is given by the author, nobody is allowed to use this material, copy it or present it in any form for non-profit or commercial use, except for your own personal use as learning material. The author takes no responsibility for any flaws, mistakes or errors in this material or for any consequences thereof.
I would like to thank my guide Gerson Quispe and my cook Leonardo of my party in Cusco for their help in trying to learn me to appreciate the Quechua language and for looking at the Quechua material of this course and the exercises. The only one to blame for mistakes is me.
Introduction (Qallariy simi)
I am planning to publish a simplified language course on Quechua on the internet.
The first reason is that good books on learning Quechua seem difficult to find and/or are too complicated. When I was in Cuzco in the summer of 2008 I had a hard time finding something useful. This seems strange, because in the Andes Quechua is a widely spoken and thus an important language. It is also a beautiful language. If you are planning to go there, remember that the people love it when you speak Quechua, even if it is only a little. In the summer of 2008, I travelled to Cuzco and did two treks, to Salkantay and Choquequirao. It was a beautiful experience, but even more meaningful because I could relate to people in Quechua. This proved in the spring of 2009 when I spent 5 weeks in Cuzco and environment. After 1 year I was almost fluent on the level of daily life of Quechua language.
A second reason is that I went through the curriculum of The Four Winds Society, that is dedicated to bring into the world the knowledge of the Q’ero masters. Quechua is the mother tongue of these masters of energy, and their way of living and of thinking is shaped by this language.
Characteristics of the language
Anyone planning to learn some Quechua should keep the following in mind. Every language has at least two levels. The first is that of the street and the market, topics such as daily life, the weather, health etc. The second level is that of poetry, philosophy, the arts and sciences.
This course focuses only on the first level. If you want to learn more, there are other resources, some of which you will find at the end of Lesson 8.
Quechua has existed for centuries only as a spoken language, which leads to some problems when learning it from written material. Although there is an official written form (3-vowels) people feel nevertheless free to write it as he/she see fit. A more or less heavy debate exists between linguists about the writing of Quechua. This debate focuses on the question wether Quechua should be written with 3 (a, i and u) or 5 vowels (a, e, i, o and u). The problem as I see it is that in Quechua an o of an u does not make the difference for a Quechua speaker: He knows how to pronounce a word that is written wit an “u”, but should be pronounced more as “o”. For many people this problem also exists in English. An native English speaker knows how to discern between and to pronounce ” day” and “they”. Such is also the case in Quechua. I am not able or legitimized by any formal training to decide, even for myself on the matter. This site was originally written in the 5-vowel Quechua. But knowing now that the official form is 3-vowel, in time I will change the text in 3-vowel Quechua. (in the meantime the spelling will not be completely consequent.) But nevertheless, don’t worry too much, these differences in written form are often superficial when it comes to speaking the language.
To learn Quechua properly is easy. The structure is logical beyond understanding of a westerner. I know only one language that is even more easy to learn, i.a. Chinese. But there is the trouble the writing. Luckily for us now, the Inka never invented writing, so we now can use the Latin alphabet (but with the problems of the 3- or 5-vowel debate). On the other hand it is not so easy after all to learn to understand the spoken language. One reason is that in Quechua words are composed of word stems glued to infixes (sounds added inside the word) and suffixes (sounds added to the end) that change the meaning. Allqo, for instance, means dog; allqocha means a little dog; allqochayki means your little dog; and allqochallayki means your dear little dog. Wasi means house; wasicha means a little house; and wasichasan means “he is building a house.” There are many possible infixes and suffixes. This seems, when you see a text, very difficult — and indeed at first it is. But many of the variations carry only a very subtle meaning and in daily life are not that important to express. You will find only the more common suffixes and infixes in this course.
It is my opinion that learning Quechua is made more complicated than necessary by trying to get it all at once. The basics of the language (its structure) are not very complicated and are easy to learn. Only on the above-mentioned second level of the language does one need to know the more complicated meanings made possible with more infixes and suffixes.
So I will present a simplified approach. I am not a linguist by profession, so I am also not inhibited by rules on this subject. This may result, for a linguist, in some strange results. But I am aiming this work not at linguists, but at people who have no formal training in languages and only want to know something about Quechua.
How to use this course
The best way to use this course is to read it through several times, so that the words and forms in Quechua can sink into your system. After that you can start with the exercises. They are structured in a way to get basic Quechua into your system. If you can, record the work (on an iPod or other device) so you can listen again and again. This is the way you learned your own language, and it is the best way to learn a new, quite different one.
Spoken Quechua and pronunciation
The main characteristic of the spoken language is this: The emphasis of a word is almost always on the next-to-last syllable. For instance: the word wasi, house, is spoken wasi. But when you say “your house,” it changes to wasiyki, spoken wasiyki. Your (plural) house is wasiykichis, your (plural) houses, wasiykichiskuna. This may be counterintuitive to western ears but in learning the language it is something to keep very much in mind, on the foreground even. When you first encounter native speakers it will be very difficult to understand them if you have not trained in this most important rule. At the same time a Quechua speaker is not able to understand you either. For her it will be like listening to words with all the wrong accent. Try it out yourself and say: government, with the emphasis on the second syllable. Nobody will understand you. This item of pronunciation cannot be overstressed. For this reason I will use in this course a way of writing of the language that makes is more easy to pronounce properly from the start.
In the first lessons I will use bold/cursive script to indicate the emphasis. The best way to train this is by speaking out loud.
Writing of Quechua
The next point to mention is that for learning purposes it is very helpful to write the language as it is composed, with its different parts written in a way that makes it is easy to see how a word is composed. So for at least the first lessons I will write the language in a way that highlights the component parts of words. For instance: house in Quechua is wasi. My house is wasi-y, your house is: wasi-yki, or something more elaborate: Rima-y is the verb for “to speak,” or “to say.” The word rima-yku-lla-yki means something like “I greet you in a friendly way.”
It is important when you are learning to discern the phonemes that build the words quite exactly. Often even one letter can change the meaning, like in wasi-y, my house or wasi-n, his house. So alqochallay, or alqochallan: the first is my dear little dog and the latter his dear little dog.
Note: very important: this method of writing for the sake of emphasis and structure has nothing to do with the pronunciation of the syllables. The sentence: If you speak too fast, I cannot understand: utkay-ta rima-pti-yki, mana hapi-y-ta yacha-ni-chu. Is spoken with the syllables connected and with the emphasis as stated: utkayta rimaptiyki, mana hapiyta yachanichu. The way of building up a word and the spoken form of it are two quite different things! This is for us westerners also quite uncommon. This also what makes it so difficult at first to understand. The only cure is practice.
Another point of pronunciation is that Quechua is written according to the rules of the pronunciation of the Spanish language. This makes pronunciation of the written form easy for native speakers of languages in which the pronunciation has this same system. This is the case for speakers of f.i. Dutch and German. For English native speakers when not familiar with Spanish it wil be more difficult. A table of pronuntiation of vowels and sounds is added hereunder.
The last point to mention is that in Quechua words seem not to have a meaning that is fixed. As I understand the Quechua language now, a word in Quechua often has a “field of meaning”, with which I try to say that with an utterance in Quechua for a Quechua speaker not only the digital meaning is conveyed but also a field of possibilities for potential interpretations. An example might help here. The word munay for instance is a verb and a noun, having to do with positive attitude. Munay may mean: love (not sexual), will, to like, to want, good, to desire. Many forms with the stem munay can be formed with suffixes and infixes to express these basic meanings. The word Apu in Quechua has a bundle of meanings, all tied up with authority. I cite form Webster’ Quechua-Englisch Theasurus Dictionary: authority; Lord, rich, mighty, supreme being, boss, supreme, casique (a sort of Andean major), chief, powerful, wealthy. And in this list the most important meaning is omitted, namely, that Apu has a very special cultural/religious meaning in the form of the mountains, being Apu’s, mainly masculine (white) forces of nature.
This means also that translating Quechua begs for some creativity.
Table of pronunciation (short version)
|a||As in father||Apu (mountain), para (rain)|
|i||As in see||Sipas (young woman)|
|u||As in hoot or soon||Apu, Puma, unu (water)
An u becomes more like o
Kamayuq is heard as kamayoq
|y||As in weed||Wasi-yki (your house)|
|e||Does not exist||(when written it is spoken as i|
|(o)||As in dog, but almost same spoken as u||Allqo (dog) or allqu (look also under u)|
|ay||As in “ai” or as in day, but with stronger a||Tayta (father) Ayni, Mesayoh; mesayoq|
|B||As in bed||Baratu (cheap)|
|C||Does not exist|
|ch||As in chew||Chullu (cap with earflaps)|
|D||As in Doodoo||Domingu (sunday) only in borrowed words from Spanish|
|F||Only in borrowed words from Spanish||Fasil (simple)|
|G||As in Golf||Gubyirnu (government)|
|H||Begin of word: as in head||Huk (one)|
|h or q||Middle/end of word: As in loch or soft q||Kama-yuq (boss)|
|J||Does not exist||Only in names borrowed from Spanish|
|K||As in Canada||Karu (far)|
|L||As in life||Lawa (soup)|
|ll||Spoke as ly lyou||Llama (lama)|
|M||As in major||Mayu (river)|
|N||As in name||Nina (fire)|
|ñ||As in canyon||Ñan (road)|
|P||As in Peter||Patrun (boss)|
|Q||As in cover||Qanchis (seven)|
|R||As in rover||Rumi (stone)|
|As in sorrow
infix -sa as -sha or -sia
|Samay (to rest)
kasani (I am)
|T||As in tower||Tawa (four)|
|V||Does not exist|
|W||As in wall||Wallpa (chicken)|
|X||Does not exist|
|y||Begin of word as in yes||Yaku (water|
|y||Other places as i|
|z||Does not exist|
In many cases words beginning with a qh-, th- et cetera are a little bit more aspirated. Compare: tawa (four) and thanta (old (for things)). Thanta is spoken with more breath.
Words that begin with chh- are spoken as with ch- but even more aspirated. This applies to words that begin with chh-, qhh- etcetera.
Quechua in its Cusco form uses words that have a throat-stop. These are often written as ch’- ; k’- ; p’- ; q’- ; t’- .
Examples: Ch’aska star; K’acha elegant; p’acha clothes (Comp. with pacha time, earth) q’intihummingbird; t’ika flower. In English there is no similar. The best way to describe the pronunciation is to start with the consonant spoken as a single syllable, with a “click” deep in the throat, followed immediately by the rest of the word, spoken as a new word.
(Note: I made the observation in Peru that this throat stop is not always used. When you say tika in stead of t’ika, everybody will understand you.)
Note: Sometimes the forms ay en uy are taken together (as in ayllu (group family), or suyu(region)) in pronouncing them, and in other cases they are separated in a-y and u-y. As inallqochallayki (your dear little dog), taken together, or hamuy (Come! as a command), separated, or Mesayoq (literally, with Mesa), taken together. As a rule I observed that in the middle of a word ay and uy are most of the time taken together and at the end of a word they mostly are spoken separated.
The forms with …..i-y…. like wasi-y (my house), wasi-yki (your house) are spoken with an almost imperceptible prolonged ….i-i….., or phonetically wasee-ee, and wasee-eekee, the second “ee” a little bit softer and shorter than the first time. It is almost imperceptible.