Tue, Dec 08, 2009 - Page 16 News List

Andean nations seek revival of ancient Inca tongue

Quechua is gaining traction with leftist presidents and a TV station promoting its use



A shaman blows a bull’s horn on festival day and pivots to clouds of burning incense in a purification ceremony, all shot on video.

The snapshot of native American life opens Nukanchik Yuyay, a twice-daily newscast in Quechua, the language spoken by millions of people across the Andes and enjoying a revival as even presidents take up its cause.

The program’s newscasters speak below a woolen tapestry of Cotopaxi, a glacier-capped volcano within sight of the station, Ecuador’s channel 47. Besides the station’s cameras, a wolf mask bares white fangs.

Based in Latacunga, 80km south of Quito, Channel 47 says it is the world’s first television station for Quechua speakers. On air since July, it features 30 percent Quechua programs and aims to go mostly monolingual as its audience increases.

“Our next project is Quechua cartoons ... to draw in children,” says station manager Angel Tiban.

Channel 47’s appearance is a part of broader efforts to inject new life into Quechua, repressed by late Spanish colonial powers. New constitutions in Bolivia and Ecuador, enacted under leftist presidents, enshrine Quechua as an official language, and Bolivia this year founded the first Quechua-speaking university.

In Ecuador, Rafael Correa is the nation’s first fluent Quechua-speaking president in memory.

Quechua speakers live along the Andes, from Argentina and Chile in the south to Colombia in the north, where it’s called ingano. Most are in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador.

First spread by the Incas, Quechua expanded its reach under the Spanish who used it to spread Roman Catholicism.

For centuries, university professors taught the language at the region’s premier university, San Marcos. Quechua books and theater on Inca history flourished. But that suddenly halted and classes were banned after colonial authorities crushed an Indian rebellion in 1781 led by Jose Gabriel Condorcanqui, who adopted the name of Inca ruler Tupac Amaru.

Estimates of Quechua speakers range from 6 million to 13 million, but linguists say that even now some Andeans still won’t tell census takers they speak the language because of its long association with backwardness and low social status.


“Kichwa (Quechua) used to have no prestige ... If you wanted prestige, you learned English, French or German,” says linguist Jose Maldonado, a presidential adviser who provides a weekly recap in Quechua on national television of Correa’s activities.

Now, Ecuadoreans outnumber Americans in Quechua classes at Maldonado’s university and bodyguards, police and civil servants at the presidential palace are signing up for in-house classes.

With an eye on younger generations, Quechua educators and broadcasters are also seeking to promote the “cosmovision” of Indian peoples once ruled by the Incas. It invokes the intricate balance of dualities that make up the world.

“In geography, we want to teach that there are male mountains and female mountains, and sometimes a smaller mountain between is a child,” said Alberto Conejo, academic director of intercultural bilingual education at Ecuador’s education ministry. He wore a blue poncho and many bureaucrats on the high-rise floor wore traditional Indian dress.

To illustrate “cosmovision” to a recent vistor, Channel 47 manager Tiban rolled tape of a native flutist’s Quechua interview, and interpreted: “He is saying some wind pipes are masculine, others are feminine, and that they have to be in equilibrium for harmony.”

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