June 2014

El Quechuañol

The Bolivian Constitution recognizes 37 official languages in Bolivia, but most people speak Spanish or Quechua, which are two very di’erent languages. So, how can people understand each other while they do not speak the same language?

By: Soren Clarkwest
Projects Abroad Volunteer
Baltimore, United States


Two women speaking quechua in Cochabamba streets
Photo: Ximena Noya

I am beginning a tour of Chataquila with two guides. Jorge, the lead guide, has just finished explaining the history of Incan expansion through the region. As we turn to continue, he begins speaking in Quechua to the secondary guide. Despite the fact that I am unable to understand the topic of conversation, I enjoy listening to the language. However, a few sentences into the conversation,I hear Jorge clearly say “…de la...” in the middle of a phrase. Shortly after, the secondary guide throws is “…cuales…” and quickly after that, finishes the conversation with “…bueno, vámonos.”

While shopping in La Cancha I have overheard similar conversations; however, they are generally in Spanish dominated by Quechua words thrown in and, from what I can tell, mostly nouns and adjectives. While the Bolivian constitution states that Bolivia has 37 official languages, the majority of people speak Spanish and Quechua. Additionally, there are slightly over one million (1,000,000) Bolivians who speak Aymara. These languages dominate the southern and western parts of Bolivia. While a large mix of indigenous languages are still present in the north and east of Bolivia, the general population is not. Only an average of 1.9 people per square kilometer lives in the northern and eastern areas of Bolivia. Meanwhile the large cities with high population density surroundings are almost entirely present in the south and western parts of Bolivia, and this is where Spanish and Quechua are the dominant languages.

A mix between the two languages while conversing in Bolivia is normal. It’s so useful it can even be expected. It allows for more options of what to say when trying to get your point across as well as making conversation more efficient for the speaker. There are also people who are not fully fluent in one of the two languages, so mixing them up are required for a full conversation.

However, when you look at both languages’ grammar structure, you start to wonder how any mix between them is possible. According to Fernando Garces, linguistic researcher at the Museum of Archeology in Cochabamba, Quechua is an agglutinative language while Spanish is a polysynthetic one.

This means that in Spanish there are individual words to represent things like prepositions or adverbs, while in Quechua there are not standalone words that represent those, there are suffixes that are added on to root words in sentences to communicate meaning. For example, in Spanish, the word “con” is used to denote who an action was done with; this word when spoken alone has meaning. The Quechua suffix “–wan” is in some cases placed at the end of nouns to signify the same meaning as “con. “Wan” by itself does not have meaning. This makes direct translation between the two languages in many cases impossible, which in turn would make speaking a mix of both languages difficult.

A mix between the two languages during conversation in Bolivia is normal.

The Afro-Bolivian Saya eventually emerged, consisting of aspects of its African ancestry blended with characteristics of the culture of indigenous Latin American peoples such as the Aymara (a native nation in the Andes and Altiplano regions of Bolivia, Peru, and Chile).

Fernando Garces claims that “The biggest difference is the Typography,” and I agree. It seems incredible that two languages that even on the basic level have large differences in grammar structure are able to have a cohesive mix. In the southern United States, such as parts of California, Arizona, Texas, etc., it is not uncommon for what is called “Spanglish” to be spoken; it is a mix of English and Spanish. However, English and Spanish are both agglunative languages with very similar grammar structures. I would say that the largest grammar difference between Spanish and English is adjective placement; however, the misplacement of adjectives generally would not cause confusion so the two languages’ words can be interchanged quite easily.

Interchange one word in Quechua with Spanish would mean interchanging that one word with a whole phrase of Spanish.

There are many more words in Quechua than in Spanish simply due to the different possibilities of words that can be formed with suffixes, so to interchange one word in Quechua with Spanish would in many cases mean interchanging that one word with a whole phrase of Spanish.

When you look at the two languages grammar structure you start to wonder how any mix between the two is possible.

This might make it seem like mixing both languages would be impractical, but obviously it does occur. In “Convergence in Syntax/Morphology Mapping Strategies: Evidence from Quechua-Spanish Code Mixing”, a paper published by Liliana Sánchez in 2011, Sánchez discusses a study done on bilingual students, in which they were asked to retell a story in Quechua. Throughout each retelling there was a varying degree of Spanish presence. The conclusion was that the most common mixing that occurred was the addition of the Spanish preposition to sentences while at the same time removing the Quechua suffix and leaving simply the root word. The students would use words like “con,” “para,” and “sin” before the Quechua word to which they referred to and then remove the corresponding Quechua suffix, which would provide the same meaning from the root word. [Assistant editor’s note: Lisita, mana entendiquichu ni jota]

Fernando Garces agrees that this makes sense, adding that when it comes to the mixing of both languages in day-to-day life, that there is no set formula for how it is done, that there is a range. “Unfortunately, Spanish has more prestige,” Garces says, and therefore “[type of] conversation affects how much Spanish presence there is in Quechua.” When talking in a more professional or official setting, with someone less well known, and in more formal settings, he says that Spanish will be used much more in the Quechua conversation than if the people were speaking in very informal situations.

Garces also states that the general population’s idea of what Quechua is has changed. When people speak in Quechua, but Quechua influenced by Spanish words, they don’t think of it as Quechua with Spanish words included; they simply think of it as Quechua. Garces, when referring to the “average” Quechua speaker, says, “He thinks he is speaking in pure Quechua… while the specialist… he who studies Quechua, he knows.”

Garces gave me an example: the word “Laya.” He told me it was a Spanish word, although I had never heard of it. Garces said he was not surprised that I did not know it, that the use of the word had decreased more and more till it nearly disappeared from Spanish use over the past century. But, Garces stated that this word has been adopted by Quechua and would not be uncommon to hear it in a Quechua conversation.

Garces concluded that when it comes to the mix of Spanish and Quechua, it is much more common to see some Spanish influence in Quechua than the other way around. It’s as when I heard my guides at Chataquila speak with a bit of Spanish grammatical use.

“Unfortunately Spanish has more prestige” Garces says

While it may be slightly disheartening that the level of Spanish influence in Quechua conversation corresponds to how formal the conversation is, it is still incredible that two languages that differ so vastly in the very basics of their grammar structure can be brought together to create cohesive communication between bilingual speakers.

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