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Official Languages in Peru

Peru is not only home to the official language of Spanish, but it also preserves the Quechua, the indigenous language of the Incas.
Unbeknown to many, Peru is not only home to the official language of Spanish, but it also takes great pride in its preservation of Quechua, the indigenous language of the mighty Inca Empire which, despite being under threat of extinction during the almost three-century-long Spanish colonial period, is still spoken by an impressive 13% of the population and was equally made an official Peruvian language in 1975.

Although much smaller in terms of numbers of speakers and no official governmental recognition to its name, Aymara, Peru’s other highly-esteemed native tongue, is often grouped together with Spanish and Quechua when discussing the nation’s remarkable linguistic heritage and still enjoys great prestige in the country given its role as the third most spoken language.

However, what arguably makes Peru so unique and extraordinary is the interspersion of a further estimated 150 native languages. Entering the country in 1533 when the first Spanish conquistador, Francisco Pizarro, arrived on Peruvian soil, the Spanish language is now the principal language of the nation’s government, media communication, and education system. However, although the Spanish language initially brought to these Latin American shores would have been Iberian Spanish, the Spanish spoken by modern-day Peruvians has undergone some minor alterations since it was first imposed upon their ancestors almost five centuries ago.

Still extremely comprehensible to the proficient Spanish speaker, Peruvian Spanish differs most obviously in its pronunciation of the letters “c” and “z” and use of alternative vocabulary. Whereas Iberian Spanish pronounces “c” and “z” with a “th” sound, Peruvians simply pronounce it with the English “s” sound. Spanish speakers may equally wish to learn just a few of the more commonly-used words of Peruvian Spanish before embarking on their trip; chibolo replaces the Spanish muchacho (boy), jato replaces casa (house) and papi and mamiare the endearing terms used for padre and madre (father and mother).

Allegedly dating back as far as 2600 BC, several centuries prior to the settling of the Incas, Quechua staggeringly remains a fundamental language in present-day Peru and, most notably, in the remote, yet still reasonably well-populated, Andean regions. Predominantly an oral language owing to its fascinating khipu origins, Quechua is equally spoken in its various dialects by inhabitants from almost all of South America’s nations. However, given that the language is based on a tangible art form rather than a conventional writing system, spelling discrepancies are, unsurprisingly, common and its glottal sounds have led to the production of an incredibly unique written form in modern times.

Filled with heavy vowels and multiple commas, Quechan words are usually extremely long and visitors to Peru may find themselves somewhat overwhelmed when attempting to pronounce greeting expressions such as napaykullayki meaning "hello" or tupananchiskama meaning "goodbye."

As with Quechua, Aymara’s linguistic roots are truly remarkable. Initially preserved through the printing of symbols or pictures on animal skins by using plant or mineral pigment, the Aymara language evolved considerably under Spanish colonial rule thanks to the adoption of the Latin alphabet and even more so, as of 1985, when the Peruvian government introduced the Aymara Official Alphabet. However, although it holds the status of being Peru’s second most spoken indigenous language, there is some concern regarding its uncertain future. With dwindling numbers of speakers, primarily concentrated on the southern border with Bolivia and around the globally-renowned Lake Titicaca, desperate attempts are being made by the Peruvian government to preserve this aboriginal tongue.

Having already lost at least 37 native languages, Peru’s indigenous inhabitants and governmental officials are continuously working together to conserve the multitude of diverse languages and dialects so vital to the nation’s rich cultural past.