The Language of the Incas

the language of the incas

What Was The Official Language Of The Incas?

The Incas’ official language was the Quechua or Runasimi (people’s language) in the native language. Although the Inca Empire dominated a huge territory and had many provinces with different ethnic groups with their own languages, the Quechua was the official language; once a province was conquered, the king used to send teachers called Amautas to teach the Quechua Language.

The Incas didn’t have any writing system, and everything was passed orally. Their communication system was through knotted strings known as Quipus to record dates, the number of people, the number of llamas, lands, and even history on their ancestors in the form of tales.

Quipu, quechua
Quipus, the comunication system

Quechua is spoken in many countries in SouthAmerica, including Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Argentina, and Colombia. It’s an official language in Perú, Bolivia y Ecuador. It has several dialects and variations depending on the location. For instance, Quechua from Cusco is different from Quechua from the north of Lima. They will understand each other; however, the pronunciation or the termination of the words will be different in some cases.

The Secret Language of the Incas

The Inca Empire’s official language was Quechua; however, many historians believed that the Dominant Class have their own secret languages. This secret language is believed to be the Pukina or Puquina, a language spoken by the extinct civilization of Tiawanaku, who lived around Lake Titicaca.

According to the myths of the origin of the Incas, the Lake Titicaca was the birth Place of the first Inca Called Manco Capac. He and his wife, Mama Ocllo, were born in Lake Titicaca and traveled through the mountain until they arrived at the Valley of Cusco. They taught local farming techniques and architecture and became the most extensive South American empire leaders.

This myth of the Inca origin suggests that the Inca Empire’s founder was from the Titicaca lake region, probably was a descendant of the Tiwanaku civilization that disappears in the history line right when the Incas appear in the history line.

The Inca nation spoke Quechua. However, the elite spoke Quechua plus a secret language that the others couldn’t understand. This was mentioned several times by chroniclers such us: Inca Garcilaso de la Vega (1539-1616), Bernabe Cobo (1582-1657), and others. Although nowadays, we call Incas to all the Quechua Nation, the empire’s real name was Tawantinsuyo (4 provinces of the Sun) during the Incan Empire’s height. Inca was the supreme title, the king, and the royal family around the king was called Panaka.

Its believed that the Royal family, descendants of the Tiawanaku Culture, spoke the Pukina, and they used tas as a tool to dominate better the Quechua Nation.

Origin of the Quechua Language of the Incas

Runasimi (the people’s language) or Quechua was born in Caral, in Supe Valley near Barranca Province, about 200 kilometers (120 miles) north of Lima. Caral is the oldest city in the Americas. From Caral, Quechua was spread across the Andes until the 1300s when Manco Capac took over Cusco villages, founded the Inca Empire, and imposed it as the Official Language of the Tawantinsuyo.

Peru is home to one of the oldest civilizations in the world. The first civilizations started around 4000 BC on the coast of Peru with Caral, Chavin, Moche, Paracas, Nazca, Tiawanacu, Wari, and the Incas Cusco 1300s to 1532. Over the years, this language was influenced by many local languages such as Aymara, Pukina, Muchick, etc. Thanks to thsi interaction of many languages, nowadays, Quechuas have many dialects.

Runasimi was the original name of this language; however, Quechua might come from Qeshwa, a native word that means highlands or Andes. Qeshwa Simi means the language of the highlands, and it was converted to Quechua during colonization.

Quechua during the Inca Empire

The first Inca king and his family came from Lake Titicaca Area, they spoke Puquina, and when they arrived in Cusco, the people from the Valley of Cusco spoke Quechua. They adopted it as the official language of the great Inca Empire. Studies show that Quechua was the most common language in all Pre-Columbian cultures.

During the Inca Empire’s height between the 1400s and 1500s, Quechua was imposed by the Inca Kings to all subjugated provinces to have a whole powerful empire with the same language. However, evidence proves that many regions kept their original languages and didn’t replace them with Quechua.

Quechua after the Spanish Conquest

After the Conquest of Peru, the new official language imposed in the colony was Spanish. The Incas were forced to learn the new language and adopt the new Catholic religion. However, due to the territory’s extension and many Andean people living in the mountains far away, it was difficult for Spaniards to control.

Quechua was soon accepted by the Spaniards, who even used Quechua to spread Christianity. The missionary Domingo de Santo Tomás, who arrived in Peru in 1538, wrote the first book, “Grammatica o Arte de la Lengua General de Los Indios de Los Reynos del Perú” (Grammar or Art of the General Language of the Indians of the Royalty of Peru) in 1560.

After the Túpac Amaru II rebellion in the 1780s, The administrative and religious use of Quechua was banned together with many texts. The use of Quechua will go down for many years and only be spoken by indegiounous people in the Andes.

Quechua Today in South America

By the 21st century, Quechua was still the most spoken indigenous language in South America; around 12 million people speak Quechua, and it’s an official language in 3 countries.

Peru was the first country to recognize Quechua as an official language in 1975, followed by Ecuador in 2006 and Bolivia in 2009. Of these countries, Peru is the country with the highest number of Quechua speakers.

Quechua Poeple
Quechua speakers from Patacancha Village

Learn Quechua to travel To Machu Picchu

Quechua in Peru is very popular; around 13 percent of Peru’s total population speaks this language.

When you travel to places like Cusco, you will always encounter a native Quechua Speaker. More than 60% of Cusco speaks this language, and almost 95% understand it even if they can not keep a fluid conversation. These are the most common words to learn to surprise your tour guide, porters, or family in Cusco.

Please note that in Cusco, most people are fluent in Spanish, and many in English, so you don’t need to worry about understanding a specific language.

  • How are you? – Imaynalla?
  • Are you ok? – Allillanchu?
  • I am fine! – Allillammi cashani
  • What is your name? – Iman Sutiki?
  • My Name is… – Nukaj sutiymi……
  • How much? – Jaykhan
  • Let’s go – Haku
  • Sit down, please! – Tiyayku

It’s important to note that Quechua doesn’t have a written alphabet and used the Spanish alphabet. Also, Quechua from Cusco varies a lot in pronunciation and writing with Quechua from other regions.

Books that were written in Quechua

Incas didn’t have any writing system; the first chroniclers after the Conquest of Peru wrote using the Latin and Spanish vocabulary.

  1. Lexicon o Vocabulario de la lengua general del Peru, Written by Domingo de Santo Tomás in 1560. 
  2. Grammatica, o Arte de la lengua general de los Indios de los reynos del Peru, Written by Domingo de Santo Tomás in 1560. 
  3. Arte, y vocabulario enla lengua general del Perv llamada Quichua, y en la lengua Española by Diego González Holguín 1586
  4. Primer Nueva Corónica y Buen Gobierno – Manuscrito, Written by Felipe Guamán Poma de Ayala 1615

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