A note on my choice of spelling Quechua words in my e-book, Inca

Hello again everyone,

I thought I’d blog a little today about some of the choices I made when it comes to spelling the Quechua words, names, and places in my e-book, Inca.

Let me start off with a simple example: The holiest temple in Cuzco in the time of the Inca was called the Golden Enclosure or the Golden Courtyard; that can be spelled in Quechua as either Coricancha or Qorikancha. The first –which I use in my book– is how the Spanish Chroniclers spell the name; the second is how many modern Quechua speakers have chosen to spell it. Both are correct, of course, but I chose the first for a couple of reasons. For one thing, the premise of my novel is that the prose is being written in Spanish by a friar in roughly 1540, so I’d prefer the 16th Century spelling. For another, I find a Q without a U a jarring experience.

Before anyone jumps all over that anglophone phobia, let me give you another word: Accountant –literally ‘Quipu Master’– can be rendered Quipucamayoc or Khipukamayoq. One is the spelling preferred by Spaniards at the time of my novel’s events, and the other is a modern rendition that asks readers to use both k and q interchangeably when both are already a hard C.

To further muddy the waters of choosing a modern spelling, Quechua as a modern language is fragmented and still evolving. A standard alphabet was set in 1975 and then a major revision was made in 1985. This has been applied across a number of distinct dialects in an uneven way. If my work of fiction really had been composed in period-authentic vocabulary it would be in a language known today as Proto-Quechua. The Inca called it Runa Simi, The Language of the People, and they imposed it as a lingua franca over at least eighty tribes. With their fall, that language splintered and in many cases merged with the accents and vocabulary of earlier tribal tongues.

Look at the English language in 1500 versus today: Is Australian versus American versus British versus South African any more or less correct? Well, if I had chosen to forsake all original Spanish spellings in favour of their ‘correct’ modern option I would have had to further pick one dialect and vet all of my spelling decisions to conform to my favourite drift from the original. That would have been a lot of work for me with very little real benefit to my prose. To take a particularly glaring case as a reason to highlight and ignore a number of quibble-worthy examples, should I refer to Cuzco as Qusqu or Qozko? Isn’t that taking things at least a little too far for the sake of the good work being done to modernize the language?

Now that’s not to say I was slavish in my adoption of then-contemporary Spanish spelling. For one thing, Spanish and Runa Simi did not share some sounds, and that led to misrepresentations that can be truly egregious. Imagine if all English cities were renamed with Rs instead of Ls because Britain’s history was written phonetically by the Japanese? Well, that really happened in South America when the Conquistadores took over. The Spanish changed all Ps to Bs, all Xs to soft Js, and many soft Ls became Rs instead. Thus we have ‘Inn’ change from Tampu to Tambo, ‘Field’ changed from Pampa to Bamba, and the towns of Xauxa and Caxamalca became Jauja and Cajamarca. I was more than willing to spell these as they really sounded in my manuscript, and I stand by that. Again, to go back to the premise that this is the story of an Inca nobleman dictating his memoirs to a Spanish scribe, is it such a stretch of the imagination that at some point in their work together they might agree to render proper phonetic representations of the words that were not directly translated?

I also did my best to avoid anachronisms, and thus Lake Titicaca is called Lake Chucuito and the words chullpa and Aymara do not appear in my text, despite being well-known modern terms for things that did exist in the time of the Inca and do appear in my novel. I admit I could not find the Proto-Quechua words, so I described chullpas as stone mortuary towers and referred to Aymara as the Colla Tongue. Both are accurate today and within their historical contexts.

There are two further decisions I made for clarity’s sake. Several but not all of the original Spanish Chroniclers chose to spell hua- sounds as ‘gua-‘. In Spanish they sound the same, but to an English reader the desire to use G as a hard sound (like ‘Go’) would be irresistibly inaccurate. That decision left me with literally dozens of words that used hua- for a ‘W’ sound, so for variety I sometimes used W, as is done in modern Quechua spelling. The best demonstration of this is that my  narrator’s childhood name is Unfortunate, which in Runa Simi is most often rendered by the Spaniards as Huaccha. Huaccha on its own is fine, but another Runa Simi word that appears in my novel quite often is huaca, which is a very difficult word to translate into English but can be summed up as ‘something holy.’ Having Huaccha and Huaca in the text –often within a sentence or two of one another– would have been an unacceptable demand on a reader’s patience. I did everyone a favour and called the character Waccha in his childhood to avoid confusion. You are welcome.

There are other places where I had to make a choice. There was an Inca general rendered by various Spanish chroniclers as either Kiskis, Quisquis, or Quizquiz. Given the option I preferred the shorter name that didn’t add quite so many ‘Qu-‘ words to my prose, plus I decided early on to make the character a womanizer, so having his name sound like ‘Kiss Kiss’ tickled me.

The long and the short of it is that I gave a lot of thought to how I was going to spell things. I didn’t make any of my decisions lightly, and I did not favour any one school of thought over the others. To those of you who think that muddles things too much, I tip my hats to you and dub thee, ‘The Purists.’ For everyone else, I did my very best to be internally consistent while making things as easily understood as possible. If you want to learn more about the Inca, you are going to come across a wide range of spellings among the research material available to you. All I can suggest is that you sound everything out phonetically to match them between books as best you can, and spare a moment to pity the young man who had to untangle all of this while also figuring out what really happened between all the accounts that conflict not just in their spelling but in their content.


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2 thoughts on “A note on my choice of spelling Quechua words in my e-book, Inca

  1. Pingback: Amazon Geschenkgutscheine

  2. Pingback: Maps for My Novel, Inca (Minor Spoilers) « Face in the Blue

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