Quichua/Kichwa and Quechua – Languages of the Andes
April 30, 2009
*By Mark Davis, Study Abroad Coordinator, Michigan State University
with comments and editing by Professor Paulette L. Stenzel. This is published here with the permission of Mark Davis.
Visitors to Ecuador and Peru sometimes wonder about the languages spoken in the Andes. One of the most prevalent is Quichua (the Spanish spelling) also spelled Kichwa (the spelling in that language). Another is Quechua. I asked Mark Evan Davis, Study Abroad Coordinator at Michigan State University, for further explanation of the history behind the use of the terms. He gave me permission to share the following on this website. – Professor Paulette L. Stenzel
There are several reasons for the spelling differences; the main one is simplified spelling, but there are historical and political implications, too.
Quichua (the Spanish spelling is still more common) is the modern Ecuadorian version of Quechua, the ancient Indigenous language of the Incas and their empire. One reason for the different spelling (Kichwa) is for simplicity.
“Quechua and Quichua are two related groups of dialects. The versions spoken in Peru and Bolivia and all points south are called "Quechua". Ecuadorian versions are called "Quichua". The main reason for the e/i difference is because there is no "e" sound in northern dialects - the "i" sound is the closest they come. The same is true for "o" and "u". For example, the Quechua word "pongo" (door or gate) comes out "pungu" in Quichua.
The development of Quechua and Quichua in the Andes was a lot like the development of Latin or Romance languages in Europe. It all started with the Incas spreading their language as they expanded their borders and incorporated other peoples into their empire - just like the Romans spread Latin to Spain, France, Romania, etc. After the Inca Empire fell, local differences evolved to such an extent that some dialects eventually became mutually unintelligible (the same way local "Latins" eventually became Spanish, French and Romanian. Most speakers of Quichua cannot understand much Quechua, and vice-versa.
Sometimes "Quechua" or "Quichua" is used to refer not just to the language but also to the people who speak it - but in most cases it's not quite right to conflate the two. If you're referring to the Quechua-speaking nation that produced the Incas or it’s modern, direct descendants it's okay to call them "Quechua". (Inca is a title, not a nationality - it means "emperor".) The problem is there are a lot of other very distinct ethnic groups who also speak Quechua or Quichua but don't identify themselves as "Quichua.” It's the same principle by which U.S. Citizens and Australians speak English, but would never call themselves "English". The English people do exist, of course, but they're only a small part of the English-speaking world. The same is true of the Quechua world.
Traditionally, "k" and "w" have not been considered part of the Spanish alphabet and only appear in words borrowed from other languages, particularly Germanic languages like English. In Spanish, the sound corresponding to "k" is usually written "c". But, as in English, if a "c" is followed by an "e" or an "i", it is softened and sounds like an "s" (or a "th", in Spain). A Spanish speaker would read "Cechwa" as "Sechwa" or "Thechwa". So, Spanish uses "qu" to indicate a hard "c" sound before "e" or "i". The English sound "w" is usually written "hu" (or less commonly "gü").
Now comes the historical part. Spanish missionaries were the first people to write in Kichwa, and linguistics and phonetics as we know them didn't exist yet. So they just used their own spelling conventions - "c/qu" and "hu" - to approximate the "k" and "w" sounds they heard and called it good enough. They weren't interested in Kichwa as such; they only wanted to write just enough of it to facilitate converting the "pagan" Indians. But their spelling conventions survived.
The problem is the Spanish alphabet doesn't have letters to represent all the sounds of Kichwa well. In some dialects, for example, there is a kind of "k" sound that is quite guttural and is almost a cross with a glottal stop in the back of the throat. (There are other variants, too, but I'm probably going overboard on the detail already.) Modern linguists using the international phonetic alphabet usually represent that particular sound with a "q". If you use "q" that way, then you can't use it the old Spanish way (only before "e" and "i"), because it would just be confusing. So, to simplify, linguists began to use "k" to represent the hard "c" sound wherever it occurred. The reasons for using "w" instead of "hu" are similar.
Now comes the political part. From the time of the Conquest to the middle of the 20th century, the Spanish-speaking elite in Ecuador defined Spanish as the official language. It was the only language taught in schools and the only language allowed to develop a written culture. The excluded, Indigenous Kichwa speakers were supposed to learn Spanish if they had anything to write. So, no one even asked the question as to whether the traditional system of recording Kichwa sounds in written form made any sense or not.
But now Kichwa speakers and some others are standing up for their linguistic (and other) rights. And there is an increasing pool of educated Kichwa speakers, writers, and readers. So, you can imagine how adopting the letters "k" and "w" would not only simplify the task of making Kichwa a written language, but also make a political statement about Kichwa's autonomy from Spanish, the language of the oppressor.
*By Mark Davis, Office of Study Abroad, Support Center, Michigan State University.