This weekend was another round of intensive quechua classes, four hours a day of grammar, vocabulary and painstaking practice. For me, the classes are always a bit frustrating. As soon as you walk out the door, perhaps with a bit of spring in your step after mastering the tricky “ku” suffix, you hear quechua. On my way back up to Musho every afternoon, I was surrounded by Quechua in the car. Straining my ears and trying to look nonchalant, I would try to understand the conversation around me. Inevitably, I would get lost.
Quechua, you see, is a language of suffixes. You may with one word: “sha” (to stand up) then add on “-mu” (directionally towards me) then “-rku” (directionally upwards) then “-ri” (quickly and just a little) to get “shamurkuri-“ which still must be conjugated and only the will mean “coming uphill for a little while.” I can also make it a question by adding “-ku” to the conjugated verb: “Shamurkurinki-ku?” “Are you coming uphill for a little while?” Quechua says with one maddening word what we say with 8.
However, what frustrates me also fascinates me. There is a suffix for humility and politeness (-lla, which changes the sense of any verb “Shamulla-“ would be, to come in a very humble and polite form) and a suffix for action realized on behalf of a community or group. There is a suffix for shared action (fighting, kissing, talking) and a suffix for meaning to help another person to do something (making the verbs learn, eat, sleep into teach, feed and put to bed).
Though I am no linguist, I like to think that these overly-specific, maddening suffixes not only act as a thorny barrier to my understanding but also show a lot about the Quechua culture. Our professor compared “-lla” (the suffix for politeness) to “por favor” (please, in Spanish), explaining that while you can use please in a tone of annoyance or demand (or sarcasm, in the States, “puh-lease…”), “-lla” could never be used that way and thus adds infinitely more courtesy to whatever action is realized. To work on behalf of the community is different than working for yourself, as kissing as a shared action is very different than kissing as a individual act.
Once I remember reading (probably in preparation for our rather bumbling journey to see Liesel) of a bilingual man, Japanese- English, who felt that his personality actually changed depending on the language that he spoke. In Japanese, he felt less selfish, more inclined to consider group and community. I wonder if the same thing happens to Quechua speakers. If so, I feel as though it gives far more reason to promote and cherish the Quechua language. With it´s demise may also come a diminished politeness and gentleness, a Spanish brashness and arrogance. For instance, I have been catcalled only once in Quechua and it was “kuyaqmi” (I love you) whereas it would take pages to note all the catcalls I´ve heard in Spanish. In 10 years, I want to know what language Musho will speak and what sort of changes that will bring about. In the mean time, I will suffer through pages of verbal and nominative suffixes in a quest for understanding.