People and Language

Peru

People

Peruvians are increasingly proud of the historical and cultural wealth, both past and present. After turning its back on its Andean origins for centuries, modern Peru now fully recognises the value of the Andes and the Amazon for all that they represent in terms of resources and ancient traditions.

Peru’s civilisation is the oldest in South America. Neighbouring countries have been created from ancient Peruvian territory and empire. Peru was the political and productive centre of the region with a privileged and special geographical location.

Modern Peru boasts entrepreneurs who have rediscovered their capacity to create new wealth, businesses and services. The country has overcome difficult political and economic crises. Although Peru is still undergoing the consolidation of its institutions, the country has now seen over two decades of democracy.

Peruvians are a welcoming people who take pride in offering incredible services and experiences to visitors that include traditional foods, celebrations and festivals. Peruvians are passionate about soccer, the national sport and a good excuse for family and friends to come together.

Peruvians are very religious. The Catholic faith has an important place in peoples lives, coexisting peacefully with other creeds.

Language

Peruvian Spanish is, for the most part, straightforward and fairly free of the quirks and national slang that force visitors to page through their dictionaries in desperation. But if you know Spanish, some of the terms you will hear people saying are chibolo for muchacho (boy); churro and papasito for guapo (good-looking); jato instead of casa (house); chapar (literally “to grab or get”), slangier than but with the same meaning as besar (to kiss); ¡que paja está! (it’s great); mi pata to connote a dude or chick from your posse; and papi (or papito) and mami (or mamita), affectionate terms for “mother” and “father” that are also used as endearments between relatives and lovers (which can get a little confusing to the untrained outsider). The inherited Amerindian respect for nature is evident; words such as Pachamama (Mother Earth) tend to make it into conversation remarkably frequently.

Spanish is but one official language of Peru, though. Quechua (the language of the Inca Empire) was recently given official status and is still widely spoken, especially in the highlands, and there’s a movement afoot to include Aymara as a national language. (Aymara is spoken principally in the southern highlands area around Lake Titicaca.) A couple dozen other native tongues are still spoken. A predominantly oral language (the Incas had no written texts), Quechua is full of glottal and magical, curious sounds. As it is written today, it is mystifyingly vowel-heavy and apostrophe-laden, full of q’s, k’s, and y’s; try to wrap your tongue around munayniykimanta (excuse me) or hayk’ atan kubrawanki llamaykikunanmanta (how much is it to hire a llama?). Very few people seem to agree on spellings of Quechua. Colorful phrases often mix and match Spanish and Amerindian languages: Hacer la tutumeme is the same as ir a dormir, or “to go to sleep.”

In addition to these primary languages, there are dozens of Indian tongues and dialects in the Amazon region, many of which are in danger of extinction.

Quecha & Quecha-Derived Terms

Quechua (“Ketch-u-wa”) was the language of the Inca Empire, and it remains widely spoken in Peru and throughout Andean nations 5 centuries after the Spaniards did so much to impose their own culture, language, and religion upon the region. It is the most widely spoken Amerindian language. Called Runasimi (literally, “language of the people”) by Quechua speakers, the language is spoken by more than 10 million people in the highlands of South America. As much as one-third of Peru’s 28 million people speak Quechua. Quechua speakers call themselves Runa — simply translated, “the people.”

Quechua is an agglutinative language, meaning that words are constructed from a root word and combined with a large number of suffixes and infixes, which are added to words to change meaning and add subtlety. Linguists consider Quechua unusually poetic and expressive. Quechua is not a monolithic language, though. More than two dozen dialects are currently spoken in Peru. The one of greatest reach, not surprisingly, is the one still spoken in Cusco. Though continually threatened by Spanish, Quechua remains a vital language in the Andes.

In recent decades, however, many Andean migrants to urban areas have tried to distance themselves from their Amerindian roots, fearful that they would be marginalized by the Spanish-speaking majority in cities — many of whom regard Quechua and other native languages as the domain of the poor and uneducated. (Parents often refuse to speak Quechua with their children.) In some ways the presidency of Alejandro Toledo, himself of Amerindian descent, has led to a new valuation of Quechua (and Aymara). Toledo said he hoped to spur new interest and pride in native culture in schools and among all Peruvians, and he made a point of having the Quechua language spoken at his 2001 inaugural ceremonies at Machu Picchu. (Even Toledo’s Belgian-born wife addressed the crowd in Quechua.)

Quechua has made its influence felt on Peruvian Spanish, of course, which has hundreds of Quechua words, ranging from names of plants and animals (papa, potato; cuy, guinea pig) to food (choclo, corn on the cob; pachamanca, a type of earth oven) and clothing (chompa, sweater; chullu, knitted cap). Quechua has also made its way into English. Words commonly used in English that are derived from Quechua include coca, condor, guano, gaucho, lima (as in the bean), llama, and puma.