How Endangered is Quechua?

This text is particularly about the situation of Quechua in Peru,
though most of the points apply generally also to Quechua in Bolivia and Ecuador




The Threat to Quechua

A Recent Quechua Revival?

How Many People Still Speak Quechua?

Will Quechua Survive?

The Minor Dialects:  Imminent Extinction



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The Threat to Quechua

The general threat to all varieties of Quechua is very much the classic one menacing so many indigenous, largely unwritten and rural languages, faced by competition from a European (former colonial) language of far greater prestige, in this case Spanish.  As a brief but very telling indication of the real status and socio-linguistic position of Quechua, consider the following citation from an article by the Quechua linguist Alberto Escobar:

Some years ago I had the opportunity to converse, in the [Peruvian] education ministry, with the official responsible for … recommending changes to state education policy.  Among these changes, particular importance was supposedly attached to those envisaged for the rural areas of the country…  ‘The Indians’, said [the official from the education ministry], ‘need brainwashing so they forget Quechua’.

Escobar (1972: 15) – my translation from the original Spanish.

Admittedly that was a few decades ago now, but it is actually only very recently that official attitudes to Quechua seem to have begun to improve a little (see below).  For centuries, native Andean languages have been in general retreat throughout the Andes (barring a few cases of Quechua spreading by internal migration, even occasionally gaining at the expense of more minor native languages).  During the twentieth century, however, and particularly its latter half, the situation took a distinct turn much for the worse.   Step by step with the ever deeper, indeed accelerating, penetration of westernised ways of life and culture into traditional life in the Andean countries, the decline of Andean languages has rapidly accelerated.

Recent decades have seen a huge expansion, into smaller and smaller Andean communities, of the money economy, formal education, roads, telecommunications and media, all of which are almost exclusively Spanish‑language environments.  These powerful and no doubt irreversible social changes in Andean society pose an immediate and extremely serious threat to even the major surviving varieties of Andean languages:  in the last thirty years Cuzco itself has gone from being a heavily Quechua‑speaking city to one in which it is overwhelmingly the minority language on the streets.

[Cochabamba, in Bolivia, appears to be one exception to this trend:  a major city where Quechua is still a real living language, fairly widely spoken (even if already far less commonly heard than Spanish in the city centre), including by young generations completely bilingual in Spanish.  Their Quechua is fairly heavily laced with Spanish influences, but this can arguably also be seen a sign of its vitality and how it has adapted to remain a ‘modern’ language compatible with a fairly westernised, urban lifestyle.  As such it has perhaps a better chance of survival than many supposedly ‘purer’ varieties of Quechua.]

The impact of mass western tourism has probably also had a net negative effect on Quechua, since almost no tourists speak any Quechua whatsoever, but many speak at least some Spanish.  And since tourism represents a major earner for many Peruvians, access to yet another source of work and money comes essentially through Spanish, not Quechua.



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A Recent Quechua Revival?

However, there is a flip side to all this.  In recent decades, again particularly with the growth of international tourism, and the money and jobs it brings into the Peruvian economy, there has been something of a resurgence in pride among indigenous Andean peoples in their native heritage.  This covers both the physical remains of world-renowned archaeological sites such as Machu Picchu, Cuzco, Nazca (and hundreds more), as well as social traits, Andean art, textiles, traditional beliefs, and not least their traditional fiestas (many with ancient indigenous roots, grafted onto Spanish Catholic festivities).  It is this heritage that is undoubtedly the major attraction for international tourists, who head massively for the Cuzco region, much more so than Lima, which many tend to avoid.  Machu Picchu is arguably a better known name worldwide than is Lima.

Particularly in the Cuzco area, this has had a considerable effect in raising the self-esteem of indigenous Andean communities – perhaps the election in 2001 of a Peruvian President of indigenous origins (Alejandro Toledo) will have a similar effect (unless things go so badly that the reverse happens…).

As yet, however, all of this has generally failed to rub off significantly in perceptions of native Andean languages – despite the blatantly obvious fact that the language spoken by the people who built all the wonderful Inca sites so widely admired in the world was of course none other than Quechua.

Nonetheless, n recent decades there have been growing, if still small, efforts to achieve the same raising of prestige for native Andean languages.  This involved first of all establishing official orthographies for certain of the Andean language varieties, so that they could at least be written.  During a brief period of state interest in the early 1970s, the Peruvian Education Ministry promoted a series of linguistic descriptive grammars and basic dictionaries (bilingual with Spanish) of six Peruvian varieties of Quechua, published in 1976 before the Sendero Luminoso terrorism took hold.  However, official attitudes soon cooled markedly, with a prejudiced officialdom suspicious of Quechua‑speakers, often automatically assuming them to be potential supporters of the rising terrorist groups (something of a mockery of the truth).  Thankfully the terrorist threat has now all but vanished, this perception has likewise receded, and there is a new window of opportunity to promote Quechua, perhaps the last before it is really too late.  The new Toledo government is proposing a significant expansion of education in Quechua, though it is too early to tell if this will make any real difference.

There have been also moves to introduce Quechua as a language of education, though this remains on a very small scale, generally limited to particularly remote village schools.  And in any case so far this has generally only been achieved for the major surviving varieties, such as Cuzco and Ayacucho Quechua in Peru.  Even for them, these efforts still appear to be having little significant effect in slowing the decline of Quechua, let alone halting or reversing it.



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How Many People Still Speak Quechua?

The actual number of Quechua-speakers is hard to calculate, since it depends on two opposing tendencies.

   ·   The first is the general decline through Quechua-speaking parents deliberately not passing the language on to their children, speaking to them in Spanish instead, and even punishing them for speaking Quechua.  This is reinforced by Spanish-only or at least very much Spanish-dominant education.  This is a very common scenario in most towns of any size, and in an increasing number of more and more remote villages.

   ·   On the other hand, the few, more remote areas where the language is still being passed on to children are generally characterised by a high birth rate, and thus a fast-growing population in the rural Quechua-speaking heartlands.  However, many of these people emigrate to the towns and cities, where they are likely to join the masses of people abandoning Quechua and not passing it on to later generations.

It is difficult to estimate the relative importance of these trends, so as to arrive at a clear picture of how many people still speak Quechua, or how fast it is declining.

As for hard figures on numbers of speakers, for most Andean languages, especially the most endangered varieties, they are fairly if not extremely difficult to come by.  Those that are available tend to show wide discrepancies and are often quite contradictory.

Published estimates for the total number of speakers of all Quechua varieties, for instance, range from anywhere from around five million to very dubious claims of up to fifteen million (those at the lower end are by far the more plausible).  Cerrón-Palomino (1987) in his book Lingüística quechua discusses figures from various sources, and comes up with a total number of 8,354,125 (!) speakers, broken down by country as in the table below (the percentage figures are for Quechua-speakers as a proportion of the total population of that country):




= 19%



= 23%



= 25%



= 0.3%


Colombia, Brazil and Chile barely exceed 5,000 speakers combined.  Other linguists, more recently, have tended to give lower estimates, of the order of six to seven million.  Remember too that Cerrón-Palomino’s figures are from 1987 in any case.

Perhaps the best resource available for more up-to-date figures, at least for Peru, is the new Atlas Lingüístico del Perú (Chirinos Rivera 2001) based on data from the latest population census in Peru in the 1990s.  This will be quoted below where the data can be assumed to be reliable enough to be meaningful.  As the author himself admits, though, he has had considerable difficulty in interpreting much of the language data.

For instance, the census recorded pockets of Aymara (!) speakers in the northern Peruvian Andes and the Amazon, data which are quite patently mistaken, almost certainly through minority Quechua varieties being mis‑classified as Aymara.  This itself is a telling indication of how astonishingly little most Peruvians – even highly educated ones – know about the indigenous languages spoken in their country.  That the census-takers can entertain the notion of Aymara, rather than Quechua, being spoken in many such areas is astonishing, and suggests that they simply do not realise that there is any difference between the two, a common enough confusion among Peruvians who know neither of them.  One other explanation may even be plausible:  so strong is the feeling of lack of worth of indigenous languages, and so little the firm knowledge about them, that it is conceivable that in particularly remote areas, speakers themselves may be confused as to whether the language they speak is a form of Quechua or Aymara.

The census data on remote and highly threatened languages are particularly unreliable, given how little ‘reach’ the census‑takers had into remoter villages.  For the Jaqaru language (of the Jaqi/Aru/Aymara family), for instance, Chirinos Rivera (2001: 121) reports only 33 speakers, while it is clear that there are in the order of two thousand.  The census-takers probably never made it to all the others – after all, it is a tough six-hour hike from the nearest dirt road to reach their villages.

What is indisputable, however, is that in relative terms, as a proportion of the national, and even regional population, Quechua is constantly declining.  Here lies a very real danger of the language becoming more and more marginalised and reduced to more and more remote places, increasingly isolated from each other.



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Will Quechua Survive?

While the major dialects like Cuzco or Ayacucho Quechua can still count many hundreds of thousands of speakers, its relative importance is in fairly rapid decline, and its future prospects are grim.  In just a few years, if nothing serious is done to change radically and for good the prevailing low-prestige perceptions of the language among Peruvians – Quechua-speakers and non-speakers alike – even the current bastions of the major dialects could slip ever more rapidly down the slope towards eventual extinction within a few generations.  I find it quite plausible that in two generations’ time Quechua will have less than half or even a quarter the number of speakers it has today, and today’s major dialects will be facing the bleak, if not utterly hopeless future of today’s minor, dying dialects.



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The Minor Dialects:  Imminent Extinction

For the more dialects, indeed, very little has been done at all.  Many such Quechua varieties remain very under‑researched, with little or no linguistic materials published on them.  This is particularly true of the most endangered varieties.  Given that the so‑called Quechua I (or Quechua B) sub‑family is very highly fragmented, for many endangered forms, the most that is available is a basic grammar and dictionary of a more major variety within the same broad dialect, but in fact significantly different from the endangered variety in question.

Socially, many of these communities are already show the classic signs of languages on the way out.  Their situation is critical, and the threat of total extinction very real and imminent.

The level of threat varies from variety to variety, and given the unreliability of such data as are available, there is little point in attempting to detail here the exact situation facing each of the multitude of minor Quechua dialects in danger of extinction.  As an illustration, it should be sufficient to consider the following data and citations from the Atlas Lingüístico del Perú by Chirinos Rivera (2001), much of which reads like a litany of dying languages.

For the Pacaraos variety of Quechua, Chirinos Rivera records a mere 8 speakers, half of them already over age 65 (pg. 120).  For Cajamarca Quechua, the total recorded number of speakers in the whole province has already fallen under 10,000, and only in two of fifteen districts is it spoken by more than 10% of the population (pg. 76).  Cajamarca Quechua is generally described as “in extinction” (pg. 167).  San Martín Quechua exhibits in general “a high index of substitution in favour of Spanish” and is “a language in retreat”, or in certain areas is already “in the process of extinction” (pg. 158).  Yauyos Quechua too is “in the process of extinction”, which is “irreversible” (pg. 120), while Yaru Quechua is likewise “in a situation of extinction” (pg. 103), except in the remotest high‑mountain areas.



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Cerrón-Palomino, Rodolfo (1987)  Lingüística Quechua  Cuzco, Peru: Centro Bartolomé de las Casas

Chirinos Rivera, Andrés (2001)  Atlas Lingüístico del Perú  Cuzco, Peru: Centro Bartolomé de las Casas

Escobar, Alberto (1972)  Lingüística y política
in:  El reto del multilingüismo en el Perú Lima, Peru: Instituto de Estudios Peruanos



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