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Andean language Andean music
Land of winds > The people > Language | Issue 01. Jul.-Aug.2010
By Edgardo Civallero | Sara Plaza

Andean languages
    Hoy solamente quiero hablar, / dejar que broten las palabras,
    Echar las frases a nadar / por sobre un mar de quietas aguas.
    Que digan ellas lo que quieran / o callen sin decirnos nada.
    Tal vez que soplen lo que el viento / escucha cuando anda de andadas.

    [Today I only want to speak, / allow words to come out,
    set off sentences to swim / in a sea of still waters.
    Let words say whatever they want / or be silent without telling us nothing.
    Perhaps they will whisper what the wind / hears when it goes walking.]

    Illapu. “Que broten las palabras”. On the album “Multitudes” (1995).
From a linguistic point of view, The Andes is a true patch-work of languages, though some of them are partially buried under a good number of local Spanish variants. A handful of those languages have even experienced a revival in recent years, and the music is among the many factors that have had any influence in making it happen.
In the Far South of the Andean range, near Tierra del Fuego, on the Chilean side, a couple of endangered languages are still spoken by Yámana and Kawésqar peoples. However, it is Mapudungu, Mapuche people’s language, which has a stronger presence in the southern Andes (the Chilean, Fuegian and Patagonian cordilleras).

Yaghan language, in Wikipedia.
Yámana culture, in Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art [es].
Kawésqar language, in Wikipedia.
Kawésqar language, in University of Chile [es].
Mapudungun language, in Wikipedia.
Mapuche, language and culture, in SlideShare [es, en].


The Mapudungu linguistic classification still stirs debate and a couple of questions regarding the number of its past and present dialects and the neighbour languages that might have been influenced by Mapudungu (mostly in Argentina) remain unresolved. In 1606 the first Mapudungu Grammar was published (Arte y Gramática General de la Lengva que Corre en Todo el Reyno de Chile, by Jesuit Luis de Valdivia), which would be followed by Febrés’ (1765) and Havestadt’ (1776) works. More up-to-date editions are the works by Augusta (1903) and by Adalberto Salas (from the ‘90s until the present). Currently there is a group of eight normalized alphabets to write this language, all of them based on the Latin alphabet, and each one with its own supporters and critics. The Azümchefe alphabet was created by the CONADI and its use is encouraged by the Chilean government, though linguists would rather recommend their Alfabeto Unificado (Unified Alphabet) and Mapuche people favour the Ranguileo. Chilean sources indicate that there are over 200.000 Mapudungu speakers throughout the country, to which around 60.000 speakers in Argentina should be added, however, these numbers are approximate.
Further north, in the Argentinian-Chilean high plains, it is possible to find the last vestiges of Kunza language spoken by Atacameño people, nowadays almost disappeared. Only a few words are remembered, preserved in ceremonial songs and related to the maintenance and conservation of irrigation ditches. This region borders on the south limits of Aymara or Aymar aru, the Aymara people’s language.

Kunza language, in Wikipedia.
Glosario de la lengua atacameña (Glossary of Atacameña language), in Memoria chilena [es].
Aymara language, in Wikipedia.


Aymara language is one of the official languages of Bolivia according to the 2009 Constitution, spoken by a third of the population as their primary language. It is also spoken to a much lesser extent in Chile and it is also an official language in Peru since 1993. It was firstly written by Jesuit Ludovico Bertonio, who printed its first grammar (Arte y vocabulario de la lengua aymara, 1612) in Juli (Peru). The most important studies on Aymara were developed at the University of Florida by a group of linguistics headed by anthropologist Marta Hardman, whose work has been ably continued by Juan de Dios Yapita from the ILCA (Instituto de Lengua y Cultura Aymara). With over 2.6 million speakers (2 million in Bolivia and half million in Peru), a very rich oral tradition (thanks to songs, legends and tales), educational texts and an expanding literature, Aymara is being increasingly used locally and there are increased numbers learning the language, both Bolivian and abroad. Even the ILCA promotes this learning with online Internet courses.

Cyberaymara, in ILCA [es].
Aymara language, in Ser Indígena [es].
Vocabulario de la lengua aymara (Bertonio, 1612), in Memoria chilena [es].


In the central part of Bolivia (Santa Ana de Chipaya, to the north of the salar de Coipasa (salt flat)) the decreasing Chipaya native population retains their Chipaj tago language (over 1.200 speakers). There is also possible listen to the Kallawaya language, spoken by Kallawaya people, an itinerant group of herbalist healers, which has a lot of terms reflecting medicinal knowledge that might be a remnant of the now extinct Puquina language. In 2003, the Kallawaya’s cosmovision was proclaimed a masterpiece of the oral and intangible cultural heritage of humanity by UNESCO.
Further north, the linguistic landscape is dominated by the huge family of Quechua languages. Derived from a common ancestor original from central Peru, it is the most widely spoken linguistic family after the Indo-European. With a total of probably some 6 to 8 million speakers, its many different dialects extends from Santiago del Estero in Argentina to Nudo de Pasto in Colombia, and from the Napo region in Ecuador to the yungas (warm valleys) in eastern Bolivia. Is one of the Native American language families most widely studied, with a very rich and diverse literature, an astounding oral tradition and an increasing number of web pages, radio and TV programs and artistic expressions which revitalize it day after day. Quechua language was firstly written by European conquerors after their arrival in the Andes. Its earliest grammar was released by Domingo de Santo Tomás in 1560 (Grammatica o arte de la lengua general de los indios de los reynos del Perú). A good number of works were subsequently published including the ones by both Diego de Torres (1603) and Diego González Holguín (1607). In recent times Rodolfo Cerrón Palomino, Alfredo Torero and Gary Parker are also renowned for their contributions and many associations aimed at studying and spreading Quechua has been created. Though there is an Academia Mayor de la Lengua Quechua (Highest Academy of the Quechua Language), placed in Cusco, its “guidelines” are strongly discussed and hardly observed after being fiercely criticized by many linguists. In Peru the Quechua alphabet has been unified by a ministerial resolution which the already mentioned Academia did not recognize. In Bolivia, the spoken language variant is recognized as one of the 35 official languages of the country. In this line, the Constitutions of Ecuador, Colombia and Peru state that Quechua is the second official language in those places where it is widely extended. On the contrary, in Argentina no official recognition procedure exists.
Quechua domination ends with the language spoken by the Inga people in the region of the Colombian Putumayo. The Cundiboyacense high plateau area is influenced by Muisca, and from this point there are many different languages spoken by peoples such as the Páez (Nasa), the Guambiano (Misak), the Kamsá, the Awa-Cuaiquer, the Tunebo (Uwa), the Yukpa, the Barí, the Kofán (A’ingae) and the original nations of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (Ijka, Kogui, Wiwa and Kankuamo).
Although the sad number of extinct languages continues to grow, the current indigenous languages spoken in the Andes reflect the stunning diversity of peoples and cultures. To a greater or lesser extent all of them were subjected to the influence of Castilian, which, combined with local languages, developed into the wide range of existing regional Spanish variants thanks to a lot of borrowings from the pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary of those original languages. This contact-induced change enriches the Andean cultural scene, which would not be fully understood if different ways of speaking, of naming things and expressing ideas and feelings were to be set aside. Undoubtedly, music is an excellent means of covering this wonderful spectrum of possibilities.

Spanish variants, in Wikimedia Commons [es].
Proyecto Español de los Andes [es].
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