Word Play: The Quechua language


MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: Today is Friday, September 19th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Megan Basham.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. The English language owes a debt to a language I’d never heard of until I hiked the Andes Mountains in Peru a few years back. 

Here’s George Grant now with this month’s Word Play.

GEORGE GRANT, COMMENTATOR: Quechua is the most widely spoken indigenous language in the Americas, with nearly 10 million native-speakers. Once the language of the vast Inca Empire, it is now spoken all across the Andean highlands of Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia and down to the grassy plains of Chile, Paraguay, and Argentina. 

Its complex grammar, syntax, and vocabulary, combined with its propensity to compound consonants, make it an extremely difficult language to learn. Nevertheless, over the course of the last half millennium, a host of common loan words have passed from Quechua into both Spanish and English.

In the Andes, the leaves of coca plants are steeped in tea and sometimes chewed, offering a mild, coffee-like stimulant that helps suppress hunger, thirst, and fatigue as well as relieving pain and altitude sickness. Of course, it is also the source of the drug Cocaine, which derives its name from the Quechua for the plant.

Quinine is the bittering alkaloid agent in tonic water often used as a treatment for malaria. It takes its name from the Quechua word for the Chinchona Bark from which it is extracted.

Poncho is a very common word for a warm woolen wrap. The original Quechua simply connoted a winter coat. 

A Gaucho is a South American cowboy working the grassy Pampas region along the southeastern foothills of the Andes. Gaucho, Pampas, and Andes are all Quechua words that have passed into our common usage.

Condors are the largest flying birds in the Western Hemisphere—often weighing as much as thirty pounds with a nine-foot wingspan. They take their name from the Quechua word for Vultures.

Lima, the capital of Peru, gets its name from the Quechua word for River, while Peru itself is derived from the Quechua name of an ancient Incan idol.

Potato, Quinoa, and Avocado are all Quechua words—as are Llama, Alpaca,and Puma. Then, there is Jerky—derived from the Quechua word for dried meat; and Chino—from the Quechua word for a coarse twilled cotton fabric.

The English language has borrowed vocabulary from dozens of languages from Algonquin and Basque to Yiddish and Zulu. But if only for the sake of guacamole, give thanks that it has borrowed freely from Quechua as well.

For WORLD Radio, I’m George Grant.


(Photo/Peter van der Sluijs, Wikipedia)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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