Linguistics Department

Colloquium - Matthias Urban (Leiden University)

Central Andean Linguistic Diversity in Space and Time

Mon, April 17, 2017 | CLA 1.302E (Glickman Center)

3:00 PM - 5:00 PM

In this talk I contrast the linguistic landscape of the Central Andes (coast and highlands of present-day Peru and western Bolivia) as it exists today with what can be reconstructed for the same region at the eve of Spanish contact. I suggest that taking into account the earliest recoverable situation, which 16th century Spaniards were still able to observe, may require a reconsideration of the areal typology of the Central Andes and of widely accepted notions as to how Andes and Amazonia differ(ed) from one another linguistically.

Today, languages of the shallow Quechuan and Aymaran families dominate the Central Andes, especially in Southern Peru and in Bolivia. Quechuan and Aymaran stand in a peculiar relationship to one another. Alongside ample amounts of shared vocabulary items, research (cf. e.g. Cerrón-Palomino 1994) has demonstrated several layers of linguistic convergence which ultimately goes back to the respective proto-languages and which continues on local levels to the present day.

Yet, Quechuan and Aymaran were not the only languages in Southern Peru and Bolivia at the point of European contact, and even today Chipaya, an unrelated language, is spoken near Lake Titicaca. Even more striking is the original linguistic diversity of the northern Peruvian Andes, where Quechua is only represented in three discontinuous enclaves. Otherwise, a large number of non-Quechuan languages were spoken in the region, creating a picture of linguistic diversity which is reminiscent of Amazonia. Today, this picture of diversity is rendered largely invisible by post-conquest language extinction and poor documentation. Nevertheless, aspects of the linguistic structures of the northern languages can be reconstructed by the application of philological techniques and by paying attention to patterns in local toponymy. The results of such analyses can then serve as the input for broader comparative work.

The sheer numeric overweight of distinct Quechuan and Aymaran varieties today, the saliency they have achieved in the scholarly community because of the intensive attention to their complex mutual relationship, and the relatively poor state of knowledge regarding the abovementioned “minor” languages that has obtained until very recently have led to a situation in which Quechuan and Aymaran characteristics have influenced ideas of what Andean languages are like to a degree that is disproportionately high. The “Quechumaran” language type (Cerrón-Palomino 1994) has become the prototype of what an “Andean” languages look like also in broader continent-wide areal-typological theorizing (Dixon and Aikhenvald 1999). I suggest that when considering the past as well as present linguistic diversity of the Central Andes, the picture must be modified. Comparative analysis of all available data for the poorly documented languages of the northern Peruvian Andes not only brings to light a corpus of clearly identifiable shared vocabulary items, including “basic” vocabulary, but also reveals shared structural traits that contrast with Quechuan and Aymaran (Urban to appear a, b).


Cerrón-Palomino, Rodolfo. 1994. Quechumara. Estructuras paralelas de las lenguas quechua y aimara. La Paz: Centro de Investigación y Promoción del Campesinado.

Dixon, R.M.W., and Alexandra Y. Aikhenvald. 1999. Introduction. In: R.M.W. Dixon and 

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