Saturday, November 22, 2014

Learning Quechua: Day 1

Written Quechua

    Written Quechua has seen a number of paradigms in its history and it's and interesting case study for those interested in written standards.


    The Inca would have been the first civilization to write Quechua down, but sadly it seems they never devised a system of writing. They left no discernible alphabet, abjab, ideogram (which is more of a quasi-writing system), or even hieroglyphics like those left by other prominent pre-Columbian civilizations, like that of the Maya. There is an interesting theory about how the Inca may have written which involves their famous quipu, a system to record numbers using knotted cords. It's an strange story involving snooty old families, ancient societies and artifacts, and Jesuits! I'm not going to bore you with what I don't really know much about. You can go here to learn more about how quipu were used and the theory on "literary quipu." I'd also suggest merely googling "literary quipu."

"Old Orthography"

    During and after the Spanish Conquests, Quechua had been written in the Latin alphabet. The written convention of the time was based off old Spanish orthography with a particular twist for writing Quechua. It had five vowel letters: a, e, i, o, and u. It also had a "hu" digraph which represented the labio-velar approximant, [w]. Another important feature to note were the letters "c/q(u)" which were used interchangeably for the velar and uvular plosives and did not distinguish between the three varieties of said sounds ([t], [t͡ʃ],[k],and [q], all have "plain," "aspirated," and "ejective" varieties that the old orthography failed to denote explicitly). This lead to a messy written standard with no "audio-visual isomorphism " (as a lojbanist would put it), but this would not be new to the world. Just look at what you're reading right now. 

"Modern Orthography"

    This hodgepodge of an alphabet was used for centuries until Peru made a standardized and modernized alphabet in 1975 and improved upon it in 1985. This new standard threw out the "hu" for a plain ol' "w" and shed the two extra vowels that they felt they didn't need: "e" & "o." It also distinguished between the different forms of [t], [t͡ʃ],[k],and [q] with "t," "ch," "k," and "q" being the plain forms respectively. You add and "h" to the end of these to represent the aspirated forms and an apostrophe to denote the ejective forms. This confused me a little at first as an Anglophone since "th" represents an aspirated voicless velar plosive as opposed to the labio-dental fricative I'm so used to, but the system is certainly an improvement on the old one. You may think everyone who speaks Quechua would embrace a new and improved upgraded system such as this, but you'd then be surprised to know that this is the center of a controversy and I believe I can explain why.


The new written standard is much more simple than the old forms, but there's been some backlash resulting in people supporting all kinds of standards and compromises. "Why would people fight progress?" you might ask. "This new system is great! They should just accept it," you might also say. But to play the devil's advocate, I posit this. What if English were to undergo a similar shift? What if were rid our writing of clumsy digraphs such as "th," "ch" and "ng" and replaced them with "þ" and "ð" for "th" like the Icelanders and "ч" for "ch" like the Slavs and "ñ" for "ng" like the Spaniards. We"ll also need to rid ourselves of suч clumzy practices as usiñ tonz of letterz for one vowel sound. We'll stick to "i" for "ee," "o" for "o," "u" for "oo," etc. Gydnes, Ai laik ðes nuw sestem myч mor alredi. If you haven't pick up on it yet, improving upon an alphabet that's already been in use for centuries is difficult, confusing, and can split up a language. If English was written as it sounds, I wouldn't be able to read what some people with thick accents were saying and our languages would split! ( I intend to dedicate more to this idea in the future.) The sort of spelling change that has happened in Quechua would NOT fly with English writers and readers.
    All that being said, there's a fundamental difference between Quechua and English, the number of literate speakers. It is true that a spelling reform like what has happened to Quechua would not work in a major world language like English since it is read by so many people, but while Quechua has eight to ten million speakers, relatively few are literate. That number is of course growing. Which makes now, or, rather, the 1980's, and opportune time to clean up the written standard. As the younger Quechua population grows, learns, reads, and writes the new standard will be accepted with backlash from only those who grew up with the older methods.

Further Reading

A detailed page about this same issue:

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Learning Quechua: Day 0

I'm learning Quechua! 

First, some background...

    Quechua is a group of languages of the indigenous peoples of the Andean region of South America. They are currently spoken be approximately 8 million to 10 million people. It is an official language in Perú, Bolivia, and Ecuador. There's a lot to talk about, but instead of regurgitating information you may not want to read, I'll link to a couple of good online resources.

Why Quechua?

    I've always been interested in Quechua, its almost aliens sounds, a grammar completely foreign to an Anglophone such as myself, its implicit relationship with the cultures of the region both present and ancient, etc. I'm also on a bit of a quest to learn a number of languages from far flung regions of the Earth in order to get a good diverse understanding of human language. It's not set in stone, but the list that I've had drafted for a while has included but not been limited to: English [Check], Spanish [Check-ish], Russian [Нет], Japanese or perhaps Mandarin [Nothing yet], a Dravidian language [Nope], Swahili or another Sub-Saharan lingua franca [Nope], and Quechua [Work in progress]. A lot of polyglots suggest you study languages from the same "family," which leads to a lot of people who speak a number of Ibero-Romance or Germanic languages since there's tons of learning material on them for English speakers. Maybe I'll move to that ideology one day, but for now my goal is diversity for the sake of "mind expansion." I've always felt that the pre-Columbian cultures of the Americas have been underrated, and they are some of my favorite of the ancient world. This, coupled with the challenge, it being on my list, and my dream of backpacking through western South America, and a bit of whim, have pushed my towards learning Quechua.

Challenges and Checklists

    I've drafted a small number of long-term goals upon my journey to learn Quechua. This isn't how I learned Spanish, which was a bit of a mess, but I think it's necessary for Quechua as I can't just go to my coworkers to practice like I can with Spanish. I'll explain them all afterwards.

  1. Writing System [  ]
  2. Pronunciation [  ]
  3. Essential Grammar [  ]
  4. Base Vocabulary [  ]
  5. Regional Differences [  ]
  6. Real World Application [  ]

Writing System

    Quechua is written with a modified version of the Spanish Latin alphabet. There are two competing orthagraphic conventions, and I'm learning the modified more phonetic modern one, but, either way, I could read Quechua. I'll write more on written Quechua, but for now let's mark this one up as a check!


    Quechua has a number of sounds that are completely foreign and alien to my anglophonic ears. Post-alveolar stops, that weird "Ll" thing, freakin' ejectives, these are all new and some times hard to produce fluidly. Also, I've been, unbeknownst to my self, been making aspirated and plain forms of certain pulmonic consonants my entire life, but I'm having trouble doing it consciously. This'll all take practice and while I already have a pretty good hold on some of them, producing them in spontaneous speech is difficult.

Essential Grammar

    After I can actually make speech that somewhat resembles the language, my intent is to start to grasp the new-to-me agglutinative grammar. I'll study this first because I find that vocab comes easier when applied in lingua

Base Vocabulary

    One of the big hurdles will be accruing a substantial and workable vocabulary. There isn't extensive Quechua-English dictionaries just lying around any ol' library. And it'll be even more difficult when I take into account my next check mark.

Regional Differences

    Quechua has gone largely unchecked by any sort of organization or consistent government mandated schooling of a particular standardization. Part of me is happy about this, because I don't like that our western culture seems to believe languages are set and the language conventions of a language are to be mandated by some small group of stuffy literature academics, but another part of me isn't too happy because the dialects of Quechua are said to be quite different and not always 100% mutually intelligible. This just makes the whole process of learning that language that much more a challenge. After the other points are checked off and I've got a good grasp on the language, I'll move to learn about the dialectal differences of the language as best I can so that I can communicate with and understand a larger Quechua speaking population.

Real World Application

    This is the exciting part! Basically, my intent is to go through the Andes and talk with people. I mean, what else do you do with a language when you can speak it?

So... What Now?

    I've already ordered some learning material can't wait to get started. I'll also be, infrequently, updating this blog under the heading "Learning Quechua: Day X" as a sort of journal on my thoughts about Quechua and learning it as I go through the process. This will probably span years and might not be all I post about, so if all you want is the Quechua stuff, just look for that heading and ignore anything else here. 

Here we go!