More than Language, Part 1: Quechua

June will begin our 5th month of the allotted 6 months our visa allows for us to be in Ecuador. We’ve used this time to rent an apartment, go to school, meet some locals and try to immerse ourselves in the local culture and language. What I’ve come to understand in a deeper way is that immersion in culture is not a separate undertaking from immersion in the language. You do not learn them in categories, separate from each other. Culture knowledge informs language learning and language learning illuminates culture. They are each other’s “in”. We didn’t know that part of our cultural immersion would include learning some (very) basic Quechua, but it’s been one of the best surprises we’ve had.

Quechua, some facts:

Quechua (sometimes, Kichwa), is the language spoken by the indigenous populations of South America’s Andes regions. That means it incorporates what is now Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, parts of Argentina, Northern Chile, and Southern Colombia. It was the official language of Tawantinsuyu, or as it’s called in your middle school social studies class: the Incan Empire. Given Quechua’s massive reach and extensive history, there are some large variations in pronunciation and spelling from one end of it’s territory to the other. For example, speakers in Northern Peru will understand the little differences of speakers in the neighboring provinces or two, but by the time you get to Southern Peru it’s almost a whole other language. One of the things I’ve learned is that given the variations it is called a “language family” as opposed to a “language” and, according to Wikipedia, “It is the most widely spoken language family of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, with a total of probably some 8 to 10 million speakers.”

I’m going with the version we’ve learned from Elena. Elena is a beautiful indigenous woman who has served as friend and housekeeper to Bo and me, and whom my children love more than any other person they’ve met here. She loves them even more devotedly in return. In case it’s not clear: We Treasure Elena. 🙂

These are the phonetic spellings as I tried to stick strictly to Elena’s word usage and her Quechua is verbally learned, not something she’s ever seen in written form. When I asked her how to spell these words she did her mirthy laugh that shows her eyes and hides her teeth and gave me a look that says I’m so very odd, but in an endearing kind of way.

Quechua, our two favorite bits:

1) Ali punja, Ali Chishi, Ali Tuta

One of my favorite things about both Quechua and Spanish are that they are both the language of greeters. In Quechua these consist of: Ali Punja (Good Morning), Ali Chishi (Good Afternoon), or Ali Tuta (Good Evening). A revealing fact about the Quechua greetings is that they add a term naming the person to whom they speak as being family.  When Bo opens the door for Elena in the morning he’s greeted with an “Ali Punja Tio” and if I’m there as well I receive an, “Ali Punja Tia”.  Now, if one of the boys says it, Elena responds with a purred, “Ali punja, mijo” (Good morning, dear son) and then immediately folds them up into an embrace so tight their giggles are barely heard, being so completely muffled by fabric as they are. Despite being notably pale skinned in the land of copper and tan, we’ve been given the title of uncle or aunt, even son, in her greetings. This makes us extraordinarily happy. It also reflects one of the core beliefs of this indigenous population. Lighters in the air folks, here it is:

We are all part of the same family.

I know that’s bumper sticker gold, but it’s also…wonderful…to witness and be included in, firsthand.

As was the case last week; we passed an elderly woman in indigenous dress, head tilted to her shoulder while she was resting against a warm wall in the last rays of sun (what we consider evening, they don’t switch to “tuta” until 7:00pm), and I watched Luke do a full stop, bend his head to meet her eyes, and say,

“Ali chishi, Tia.”

She straightens. Smiles.

“Ali chishi, ñaño.”

Good Afternoon, little brother.

And then his blonde head skipped back up to where Vaughn and I were waiting.

Some moments mean more than others.

They just do.


2) I got another laugh/look from my Quechua coach when I asked, “Como se dice ‘gracias’ in Quechua, Elena?”

I soon came to see that that laugh/look was due to the fact that I would undoubtedly have a hard time grasping this one. First of all it’s a whole phrase that they say as one word. Quickly and jumbled with intentional slurring together of syllables and sounds. Also, “thank you” in Quechua is different from Spanish and English in that there is no direct translation for the act of giving thanks. Okay, bear with me, this is as close as I can get to Elena’s word: “Díosonlopuí“. It doesn’t mean “thanks” as we know it, it means “God will pay you”.  This really puzzled me. An American mindset is trained to think that if I did something for you – you thank me, the one who did the work.  I’ve had my boys parroting thanks to every waiter and bus driver this side of the equator.

However, once you consider that if you are in a culture where it is held that everyone you meet is part of your extended family, and family simply helps each other out as a matter of fact (not choice), then to say “thanks” to someone for doing simply what they should — doesn’t make much sense. In that light, saying ‘God will pay you’ is a better way of showing gratitude. You’re acknowledging that they did something that took extra effort on their part and the Creator of the universe Himself honors that act. Suddenly this seems a much more true and powerful form of thanks to me.

And so,

Díosonlopuí, Tia...

Categories: From Jamie | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

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11 thoughts on “More than Language, Part 1: Quechua

  1. YaYa

    Oh, how I enjoyed this post, Jamie! Hello to Elena–I miss you all, and LOVE what you are doing.

  2. Clark

    Very nice. I liked this a lot!

  3. Great post! Where in Ecuador is she from? Do you know if Quechua speakers of different regions in Ecuador understand each other?

    • Hi Eric,

      I suspect they can in similar ways as they can in Peru- which is to say, a bit. 🙂 There’s actually quite a bit of diversity between the indigenous groups here. Elena and her family are in Cotacachi and the Cotacachi/Otavalo area seems to be a truly unique pocket for indigenous culture. The indigenous here dress differently then other parts of the country, so much so that they draw attention as much as we do when they travel out of this province. The biggest difference is that in this area they have become largely economically stable, often the most prosperous members of the community. Growing up in Western Colorado and having some of those stories of how the North American Indians fared, I can’t help but feel I am living in a whole community of rare and wonderful success stories. My understanding of the rest of Ecuador’s pre-Colombian groups is that they are the poorest of their areas. That is certainly what we’ve witnessed in our travels around Ecuador.

      Thanks for reading!

  4. Thanks for the reply 🙂 Thats really interesting, what kind of work, or what kind of sectors of the economy are they involved in, the Cotacachi Quechua? I’m most probably heading over to Ecuador soon, doing some research on the oil industry and its effect on the region of Sucumbios, so I am just trying to learn as much as possible before I leave.

    • Hi again!
      I just read your post about the Ecuadorian Amazon oil spill, and I am so thankful to you for writing it. It’s such important information to get out there, and I’ll be reposting it on my FB page to help spread the word.

      My husband is walking our youngest to school right now, and he will be able to give you a much more informed answer to these questions, having been curious and studying it himself recently. I’ll have him read over my response and add anything else he thinks you should know.

      What I know is that they make textiles, leather, artwork, and other products by hand and of the utmost quality here. I can buy an alpaca blanket at the Otavalo market for about $20 that would be worth much much more than that in the states. There is a lot of import/export business here and I think that is part of the equation. I also think that this area of indigenous craftsmen managed to work the changes in the Ecuadorian currency, with international trade of their goods, to the utmost advantage. Although to get much into the ins and outs of that process would put me way out of my depth.

      Bo got a lot of great background and information on Ecuador’s people and history from a book called The Ecuadorian Reader ( and while it can be a bit laborious to read – I think you’d get a lot out of it as a resource.

      Best of luck on your upcoming trip and thanks again for sharing the information.

  5. Dixie

    Jamie – I so love your story telling skills – they are captivating and delightful – thanks for sharing these adventures. Love how Luke is holding her hand.

    • Thanks Dixie! Thank you for the compliment, it means so much to me. I love the hand holding too. They are so cute together. 🙂 Love, Jamie xo

  6. Desse

    Great read! I see such purity in the pictures! The language differences is not unlike our own here the the U.S. Just going back and forth between Colo. and Texas is a huge diversity…Culturally and language. Going further South is even more amazing.! I just returned from Ala., Ga. and Fla. Had to ask old friends to repeat themselves several times!

    Headed to Colo. next week. Already miss you!

    Love, Desse

  7. Ellen

    I need to read all of this and everything you write! A message in a bottle!

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