Prof receives Aurora Prize for research on indigenous language

Although Quechua dates back to the time of the Incas and is spoken by millions in Peru, its success as a written language has been limited. Despite its official language status, it’s considered marginalized and is dogged by stigma and misconceptions. During the first half of the 20th century, however, there was a sudden flurry of writing in Quechua, and that is what has piqued York history Professor Alan Durston’s curiosity.

Right: The poem “My Countryman” by José Salvador Cavero is written in Quechua in the book Lira Huamanguina, published in Ayacucho (Peru) in 1950

It is his interest in how Quechua has been reinvented throughout history, the country’s evolving language policy and the current state of bilingualism in Peru – a concept Canada also struggles with – that has earned Durston the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Aurora Prize, worth $25,000 in research funding. The prize is awarded annually to an outstanding new researcher. This is in addition to the three-year standard SSHRC research grant he received last year worth $60,000 for his project, “The Social History of Quechua Letters: Modern Peru, 1900-1975”.

Quechua’s written history dates back to the 16th century, when Spanish conquerors introduced the Roman alphabet and sought to convert the population to Christianity using indigenous language texts. “However, it is not until the start of the 20th century that we find written Quechua being used for a wide range of purposes,” says Durston. Intellectuals started writing plays, poetry, political propaganda, speeches, medical texts and newspaper and journal articles in Quechua to fuel national identity and nation-building by reaching a broader section of the population.

“Suddenly, we have this boom. New kinds of texts that haven’t appeared before start appearing,” says Durston. As Latin American countries moved away from Western influence, the rising middle class turned toward indigenous cultural traditions and developed an interest in the country’s indigenous language. “This was a high point of Latin American nationalism.” It’s also a period that has attracted little scholarly attention. “People today aren’t aware of the diversity and richness of what’s available.” Much of the material is housed in one library and is mostly forgotten.

Left: Alan Durston

One of the barriers preventing Quechua from becoming a more mainstream written language is its perceived association with the Incas. People think they have to write Quechua the way the Incas would have spoken it, but that’s absurd, says Durston. “Quechua is not just this fossil, this relic of the Incas; it’s a living language. You can write it the way people speak today.”

Quechua continues to be spoken by people not only in Peru, but Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia and Argentina, and by many who wouldn’t consider themselves indigenous. In some parts of Peru it is spoken universally. But since the 1950s, production of literary material in Quechua has dropped significantly. Most people writing in Quechua today have little training in it as there is such a dearth of available written material to read, says Durston.

Although Quechua was given official language status in the 1970s, it wasn’t promoted, he says. Unlike in Canada where all road signs, food items, government forms, documents and the like are in both official languages, Quechua doesn’t appear next to Spanish anywhere. “It hasn’t really succeeded as a written language in politics or law.”

He hopes his research, however, will increase interest in the current stock of written Quechua material and in producing more. “I do think my research has the potential to help Quechua in Peru,” says Durston.

As part of his project, he plans to write a book in both Spanish and English about his research and develop an online archive of written Quechua material that will be available to anyone. He is the author of Pastoral Quechua: The History of Christian Translation in Colonial Peru, 1550-1650 (University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), which looks at the world of colonial Quechua culture through language.

By Sandra McLean, YFile writer