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Quechua, called Runasimi in Quechua, from runa ‘people’ + simi ‘speech,’ is the most widely distributed of all South American Indian language groups. It is spoken by close to 10 million people in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile (Ethnologue). About one-third of Quechua speakers are monolingual and about two-thirds are bilingual in Quechua and Spanish. Quechua is not a single language, but a family of related languages which are called Quechuan.

It iSouth Africa maps generally thought that Quechua originated on the central coast of Peru around 2,600 BC. The Inca kings of Cuzco made Quechua their official language. With the Inca conquest of Peru in the 14th century, Quechua became Peru’s lingua franca. The Inca Empire flourished in what is today’s Peru from 1438 to 1533 AD. The Incas used both military and peaceful means to incorporate a large portion of western South American continent. Its capital was Cuzco (in Quechua Quzqu ‘Navel of the World.’ The lingua franca of the Inca empire was Quechua. The empire lasted only about 100 years. The Incas spread Quechua to areas that today are the countries of Ecuador, Bolivia, and Chile. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the 16th century AD, Quechua had already spread throughout a large portion of the South American continent. The spread of Quechua did not stop with the Spanish conquest of Peru. It continued to spread into areas that were not part of the Inca empire such as Colombia, Brazil, and Argentina.

Aymara has been grouped by some scholars together with Quechua as part of a larger Quechumaran linguistic stock because the two languages share about 30% of their vocabulary. This classification scheme is a matter of dispute because the similarities in vocabulary may be due to borrowing rather than to a common origin.

Today, Quechua has the status of an official language in Peru and Bolivia, along with Spanish and Aymara.

  • In Peru, education is exclusively in Spanish, although many primary-school teachers use a combination of Spanish and Quechua with monolingual Quechua children. Efforts to promote bilingual education in Peru have been unsuccessful.
  • In Bolivia and Ecuador, the status of Quechua has been improving in recent years due to indigenous movement to revitalize the language. The movement has resulted in the introduction of bilingual education programs in both countries. However, Efforts to introduce the teaching of Quechua in schools in all countries are often stymied by lack of written materials in Quechua in general, and teaching materials in particular.

In rural areas, Quechua is used for everyday communication in informal contexts. Since most native speakers of Quechua are illiterate in their native language, Quechua remains largely an oral language. In formal contexts, such as government, administration, commerce, education, and the media, Spanish is used. The only cultural domain where Quechua is used extensively is traditional Andean music.


Quechua has two main branches:

  • Quechua I, also known as Waywash, is spoken in the central highlands of Peru. It is the most archaic and diverse branch of Quechua. Ethnologue lists 17 varieties of Quechua as belonging to this branch. These varieties are often considered to be separate languages due to lack of mutual intelligibility. The largest groups are Huaylla WancaNorthern Conchucas AncashSouthern Concuchos Ancash with 250,000 speakers each, and Huaylas Ancash with 336,000 speakers.
  • Quechua II, also known as Wanp’una consists of 29 varieties that are usually divided into three groups :
    • Group A consists of five varieties spoken in Peru. The largest varieties are Lambayeque with 20,000 speakers and Cajamarca with 20,000 speakers.
    • Group B comprises 14 varieties spoken in Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. The largest groups are Chimborazo Highland with 1 million speakers, Imbabura Highland with 300,000 speakers, and Cañar Highland with 100,000 speakers, all three in Ecuador.
    • Group C consists of 10 varieties spoken in Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, and Peru. This group has the largest number of speakers. The largest varieties are South Bolivian with 2.7 million speakers in Bolivia, Ayacucho with 900,000 speakers, Cuzco with 1.5 million speakers, and Punowith 500,000 speakers, all three in Peru.

Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in six different Quechua varieties illustrates the wide differences between them.

Cuzco JUQ ÑIQEN (1)
Llapa runan kay pachapi paqarin qispisqa, “libre” flisqa, allin kausaypi, chaninchasqa kausaypi kananpaq, yuyayniyoq, yachayniyoq runa kasqanman jina. Llapa runamasinwantaqmi wauqentin jina munanakunan.
Lapan runa kay pachach’u yurin libri kawananpaq, lapanchinuy iwal respetasha kananpaqmi, mana pipis jarupänanpaq, lapanpis iwal yarpach’akuy yach’aqmi, alita mana alita tantiyar kawananpaq. Chaynuy runa masinwan juknin jukninwan kuyanakur kapäkuchun
North Junín ARTICULO 1
Lapan runas kay pachachru nasimun juk rantisha runanuy mana pitas sirbinanpaqmi, alipa rikasha kananpaqmi, washasha kananpaqmi. Lapan runakunas nasipaakamun yarpayniyoqmi naatan tantiyayniyoqmi ima lutanta rurapaakurursi tantiyakunanpaq. Lapan runakunas kawapaakunaman juk wawqenuylam
Arequipa-La Unión (1) HUK KAQ
Kanmi derechonchiskuna llapanchispa, nacesqanchismanta. Kantaqmi llapanchispa runa kayninchis. Manan runa kanchu manay derechoyoq. Huk runaq derecho hukpawan kaqllan kan. Kanmi derechonchis llapanchispa allin kawsay libre tiyananchispaq. Llapan runaqpan kan yuyayninchis yachanapaq. Llapanchis kasun llapa runa masinchiskunawan munanakunapaq, huk ayllu hina.
Ayacucho PUNTA KAQ (1)
Lliw runakunam nacesqanchikmantapacha libre kanchik, lliw derechonchikpipas iguallataqmi kanchik. Yuyayniyoq kasqanchikraykum hawkalla aylluntin hina kawsayta debenchik llapa runakunawan.
Northern Conchucos Ancash ARTIKULU HUK (1)
Mayqan runapis manam pipa isklabun kananpaqtsu yurishqa. Y runa karninmi llapan runakuna iwal kayanman dirichunkunachawpis. Y yarpayta yacharninmi y allita mana allita shunqunkunachaw makurninmi runakuna huknin hukninta rispitanakur kayanman.
English ARTICLE 1
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.


Sound system
The sound system of Quechua is relatively uncomplicated with 3 vowels and 14 consonants.

Quechua has three-vowel phonemes, i.e., sounds that distinguish word meaning. Bilingual Spanish-Quechua speakers often attempt to approximate the five-vowel system of Spanish. The additional vowels are given in parentheses in the table below.


Quechua has a relatively simple consonant system with only 14 consonant phonemes, i.e., sounds that make a difference in word meaning.

  • There are no voiceless-voiced oppositions in native Quechua words, so neither stops nor fricatives have voiced counterparts.
  • In the Cuzco variety of Quechua, each stop has three forms: plain, glottalized, and aspiratedGlottalization of voiceless consonants involves complete closure of the glottis. In writing, these sounds are represented by an apostrophe. Aspirated consonants are pronounced with a strong burst of air that accompanies their release. 
Flap or trill
  • /c/ has no equivalent in English
  • /q/ no equivalent in English
  • /ɲ/ = first n in canyon
  • /ʎ/ has no equivalent in English
  • /j/ = y in yet


Stress in Quechua normally falls on the penultimate (next-to-last) syllable of a word.

Quechua is an agglutinating language. Words are built up from basic roots followed several suffixes each carrying one meaning.

Nouns, adjectives, and pronouns
Quechua nouns have the following distinguishing features:

  • Nouns are not marked for gender. If necessary, gender distinctions are made by using specific auxiliary words.
  • There are no articles.
  • The plural marker -kuna is optional: it is not used if number is clear from context.
  • The suffix -ta is used to mark the direct object.
  • Modifiers precede nouns, e.g., hatun wasi ‘big house.’
  • Possession is marked by suffixes, e.g., wasiy ‘my house,’ wasiyki ‘your house,’ wasin ‘his house.’
  • Quechua distinguishes between an inclusive and exclusive first person plural. The inclusive “we” includes the interlocutor, the exclusive one does not. 


  • Quechua verbs are marked for person, tense, and aspect.
  • Verbs can be transitive, intransitive, linking, or existential.
  • There are two past tenses. One indicates past events that are directly experienced, the other refers to events that were not directly experienced. The two tenses are marked with different suffixes.
  • Quechua sentences are marked by an evidential suffix which indicates whether the speaker has personal knowledge about a statement, or has acquired the information through hearsay.
  • Object pronouns are incorporated into the verb, e.g., rikuwanki ‘you see me,’ where -wa- means ‘me.’ 

Word order
The normal word order in Quechua is Subject-Object-Verb. The verb generally comes last in a sentence. Since objects are explicitly marked by suffixes, word order can be relatively free. The suffix -qa- marks the topic of the sentence, i.e., it indicates that the word represents old or known information, e.g., Alqoqa qarita kachuran ‘The dog, it bit a man,’ Alqo qaritaqa kachuran ‘The man, he was bitten by a dog.’

It is estimated that up to one-third of Quechua vocabulary was borrowed from Spanish. The number of loan-words is so large that Spanish sounds such as /f/, /b/, /d/, /g/ that were absent in Quechua are now becoming part of its sound system. Some examples of loanwords: sirbisa from Spanish cerveza ‘beer,’ chufirfrom Spanish chofer ‘driver.’

Below are a few common words and phrases in Quechua.

Hello. Napaykullayki
Please. Allichu
Thank you. Sulpaiki
Excuse me (from Spanish dispensa). Dispinsayuway
Yes Aríi
No Mana
Qari, ghari

Below are the numerals 1-10 in Cuzco Quechua.



Before the arrival of the Spaniards and the introduction of the Latin alphabet, Quechua had no written alphabet. Surprisingly, the Incas lacked a written language. The only Incan examples of recorded information are knotted strings known as khipu (or quipu in Spanish orthography). In the view of some scholars, most khipu were arranged as knotted strings hanging from horizontal cords to represent numbers for bookkeeping and census purposes.

Quechua has been written using the Roman alphabet since the Spanish conquest of Peru. It first appeared in print in 1560 in a dictionary by Domingo de Santo Tomas and in some religious texts. Until the 20th century, Quechua was written with a Spanish-based orthography. In 1975, the Peruvian government adopted a new orthography for Quechua which replaced the Spanish-based representations of certain sounds with letters that more accurately reflect their pronunciation in Quechua. Today, there are proponents and opponents of the two orthographies. Opponents maintain that the new orthography makes Quechua writing harder to learn for people familiar with Spanish. Proponents, on the other hand, suggest that the new system better matches the phonology of Quechua, particularly its three-vowel system.

Take a look at Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Cuzco Quechua.

Llapa runan kay pachapi paqarin qispisqa, “libre” flisqa, allin kausaypi, chaninchasqa kausaypi kananpaq, yuyayniyoq, yachayniyoq runa kasqanman jina. Llapa runamasinwantaqmi wauqentin jina munanakunan.
Article 1
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Did You Know?

1. Quechua words in English
These words came into English from Quechua via Spanish?

coca cuca, the native name of the plant
condor cuntur, the native name for the bird
guano huanu ‘dung’
jerky ch’arki ‘dried flesh’
llama llama, the native name of the animal (Spanish spelling)
lima associated with Lima, Peru, from where the plant was introduced to Europe circa 1500. The city name is corrupted from Quechua Rimac, name of an Inca god.
pampa pampa ‘plain’
puma puma, native name of the animal
quinine kina ‘Cinchona bark’ (from which it is extracted). Cinchona is a tropical evergreen believed to have originated on the slopes of the Andes in South America.
vicuña wikuna, the native name of the animal

2. Quechua in the movies

The fictional Huttese language in the Star Wars movies is largely based on Quechua. 



Language Difficulty
questionHow difficult is it to learn Quechua?
There is no data on the difficulty of Quechua for speakers of English.

2 Responses to Quechua

  1. Ruth LaCruz

    I live in Austin, TX. Do you know of any group that can teach Quechua?

    • Irene Thompson

      Check out


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